Barneys Auctions by Uncle Jasper - HTML preview
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By Uncle Jasper
ISBN 978-0-9954192-4-7 (e-book)
Copyright© 2018 by Uncle Jasper
All rights reserved. The book contains material protected under international and national copyright laws and treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without express permission from the publisher.
Other books by this author
Derek Vortimer, MBA – Manager Of Worlds (ebook, 2018)
Detective In Time (ebook, 2018)
Queen Purrpuss & Owl (ebook, 2018)
The Young Marvel (ebook, 2018)
Cover image: shutterstock
Barney O’Connell was an old Grump He didn’t mind who he offended as long as they came to his auctions and bid. He liked those who stood up to him, except for his daughter, Kathleen. He left school before the Nuns got around to teaching him the grammatical uses of the apostrophe.
Chapter – 1
In 1949 about three and a half years after the war ended, Barney found what he was looking for.
What he saw was a large, ungainly building, lingering in spite of the modernity that was creeping up on it. The odd looking structure fronted one of the main roads into the city. It had been built with a timber frame, the rest corrugated iron. Dilapidated, neglected.
Nailed to the centre one of the three large double doors a roughly painted sign proclaimed - For rent ask at forge. It too was weather beaten, and could have been nailed to the door months ago.
Barney stopped his car and went into the dingy interior of the forge. It was warm. Dimly lit by the fire, which had been allowed to die down. An elderly man sat on a rackety wooden kitchen chair and puffed tobacco smoke from a pipe with a short, curved stem. He wore a blacksmith's leather apron which fell to below his knees when he stood up.
''How much rent do you want for this old dump?'' asked Barney..''
''Go in first, if yer like, and have a squiz at them.'' The man indicated a door that opened into the darkness of the middle store. ''Lift the bar and open them front doors to let some light in and yer can have a good look round. Just close the doors and put the bars back where they were when yer finish.'
''Nuh! Yer can open them big doors, or strike matches, just as yer like.''
''I wouldn't take a match in there, everything's dried out and ready to burn, the place'd go up like a bonfire.'
''Just as yer like,' said the man. 'It's five quid a week.''
Barney went in and unbarred the double doors which opened flat against the front of the building, partly obscuring the windows.
The building was divided into three. That is three large sheds made out of one very large shed and separated by flimsy interior walls.
It was big enough for what he wanted. A few bags of produce of some kind lay on low platforms that had been built around the walls which were of rusty corrugated iron, obviously second hand. The sun's rays pierced a few nail holes in the roof and directed downwards narrow little shafts of light through which dust motes were brightly illuminated as they floated by.
He soon found another door which opened into the third tenement. It was exactly the same size and appearance as the two others.
Satisfied that it was what he wanted Barney returned to the forge. 'I could use it,' he said. 'But the rent's a killer. I could go to three pound ten for this old rat castle but that's really straining the budget. I'll pay fortnightly in advance, too.'
''I keep tellin' yer,' said the blacksmith. 'It's five pounds.''
''Well, it's going to be empty for a long time if you can't do any better than that.
‘Yer a hard man
''No I'm not, but I'm full bottle on the subject of rents, and you're asking too much.
The blacksmith knew how long it was since he had painted the sign and nailed it to the door. A few people had made enquiries about the property but they wanted him to knock down the old structure and put up modern shops in its place, then they would consider renting. Barney was the best prospect that had walked into the place for months, and he was talking about cash in hand.
''Alright,' he said, 'Four pound ten, but I can't go any lower than that.''
“Yes you can. I should have me head read, but I'll go to four quid, that's me final offer. When I come back next month it'll be three pound ten shillings, and after that, ten shillings less, down to three pounds.”
''Alright,” said the blacksmith. ''Yer not a bad bloke so I'll give you a bargain. Four quid, and I want two weeks in advance.''
''OK' said Barney. 'It's against my better judgement, but I don't mind starving.'' He put a five pound note down on the anvil, and three one pound notes.
''I've run out of receipts,'' said the blacksmith. 'I been meaning to get another book, but I been busy and haven't had a chance.''
''It doesn't matter, old timer, where I come from a hand-shake is better than a receipt any day. My name's Barney, and I'll be back tomorrow morning at six o'clock.'
''Me name's George,'' said the blacksmith to Barney as he departed.
George was not unhappy at being beaten down by his tenant. Four pounds was not too bad a rent for the times. ''While the war and the petrol rationing was on there were horses everywhere,'' he told acquaintances afterwards. ''Now the rationing's finished, me business'll go the same way. All the cockies round here are buying trucks and cars now to cart their stuff to market, and that's no good to me. I'll keep the forge going for a while but if I can get two quid a week rent for it I'll retire. That'll be six quid a week altogether for the missus and me, we can live on that.''
Barney arrived next morning in a blitz buggy bought in a government disposal sale. It had travelled thousands of miles through the outback during the war and had once been shot at during a Japanese air raid on Darwin. It still had bullet holes in it as a memento of the occasion.
Barney said six o'clock and he meant it. He turned up on time in the battle weary old vehicle, but the blacksmith was not yet there.
This did not deter Barney. After getting out his tools and fiddling with the ancient lock on the door he managed to open it and went in through the blacksmith's premises to get to his own. He lifted the bar and pushed open the two doors of the end tenement It was the one furthest from the forge. Sunshine flooded the interior showing how old, how dilapidated it was, how dusty.
''Come on, Kath,'' he said to his passenger. ''You start untying the ropes and I'll stack these bags out of the way until we can get rid of them.''
The builder of the shed must have had some timber left over and built a low platform around the wall. A few bags of horse feed were lying on it.
'Yuck!' said Kathleen, Barney's daughter, gazing with disgust at the spider webs that were everywhere, and the haze of dust that had been stirred up by their feet. 'You're not going to start a business here, are you?'
Barney had already hoisted a bag to his shoulder, but looked round with surprise. ''Why not? What's wrong with it?''
''It's old, it's dirty, it's horrible, it's full of spider webs, and it's going to fall down one day.''
''Well, it won't fall down today, and when I get enough stock in it won't be able to. Now forget about the spiders and just untie the ropes. I want to get a second load in before dark, and another in the morning for a six o'clock start.''
''I'm not working here. You didn't say anything about spiders so you can do it all yourself.''
''Bloody women! Well, I'm not going to pay you for not working''
''I don't expect you to. I'll wait outside until you finish.''
Barney had stacked the truck almost beyond its capacity, but it still operated and had got them there. In a bad mood he started to throw back the ropes that had stopped much of the load from tumbling off as they jolted towards their destination.
A gaunt man in his mid twenties, leaning against a door post with arms folded, had been watching this little difference between father and daughter. He had an appreciative eye for Kathleen who was just twenty two, had dark hair like her father, but was much better looking.
He came forward. ''G'day Boss,' he said, do you want a hand?''
Barney looked at him. ''You're a bloody walking skeleton.'' he said. 'What makes you think you can do any hard yakka?''
''That's alright, I'm plumping up nicely. I was a guest of the Emperor of Japan for three and a half years, mostly in Changi or on the railway. You should'a seen me when I first arrived home. I was crook in hospital for a long while after, but I'm alright now.''
''Yair. I was in motor parts procurements during the war, that wasn't much fun either, and now, me daughter's walked off the job on account of some bloody spiders.''
''Well, I can help. I'm stronger than I look. What are you offering?''
''Two and six an hour.''
''Well, eight hours is worth a quid. It's six now and if I work to four you'll owe me twenty five bob.''
''It's a quarter past and the clock's ticking, now start undoing those ropes, and if anything looks like it's going to fall on you give me a hoy.''
'''Sounds alright by me. Let's get into it. By the way, my name's Don.''
''Yair, I'm Barney.''
Barney had a lot on the truck. There were wardrobes, dressing tables, mattresses, kitchen tables, and chairs, tools pictures. There were ornaments too, they were wrapped in paper and packed inside the wardrobes
''Where'd all this come from?'' asked Don as they emptied the truck and ranged its contents on the platform around the walls.''
''It's from me shop in Carlton. It was too small, and anyway it's gunna be pulled down next month. I should'a been out weeks ago but I only found this place yesterday and had to act fast.''
''Yair, I was talking to George and he said you were moving in today, but he didn't know what business you were in. What have you got, a second hand joint?''
''That's it. Everything bought and sold. I reckon I could run an auction room out of here. Anyway I'm going to give it a go. I've applied for an auctioneer's license.''
''I hope you get it. And what happened to the blitz buggy? It's full of holes."
"Yair, they tell me it was on the wharf in Darwin when the Japs were bombing the place and sinking ships in the harbour. Some of our blokes had machine guns and took them on. Anyway, one of Jap planes flew low over the water and the machine gunners were tracking it as it went past. They didn't notice the old buggy until it got in the way, by then it was full of holes, the driver evacuated in time, though he might have evacuated in more ways than one.''
As soon as everything was off and stacked against the walls, Don threw all the ropes and packing into the back of the truck while Barney dragged the doors shut and dropped the bar into place.
George the blacksmith had watched all this with great interest. No horses had been brought in that day to be shod so he had plenty of time to look on and marvel at Barney's energy.
He was told he would have to come at six every morning or else give his tenant a spare key. He didn't mind that. There was nothing in the forge worth taking. The anvil was too heavy to lift without a crane, and no one wanted blacksmithing tools anyway, it was a dying trade. They could come in by way of the forge if they wanted to.'
Kathleen was squeezed between the two men on the front seat as they returned to Carlton, an inner suburb of Melbourne. She made it quite clear to her father that if he wanted to employ her in this new business he would have to eliminate the spiders, and their webs, and do something to make the premises a bit more presentable.
Barney drove grim faced while being lectured, but Don filled any spaces in the conversation with tales of his three days of fighting in Singapore, his three years of detention in Japanese prison camps, and the months in hospital afterwards.
Chapter – 2
The same day that Barney's Auctions opened for business Don's employment was made permanent. Barney went out a lot, inspecting furniture for sale or attending auctions. Don stayed behind to look after the business, and acted as storeman during the auctions.
One day Barney went to an auction where thirty rolls of linoleum floor covering, the property of an insurance company, were on sale. He came to an arrangement with a fellow dealer not to bid against each other and they took fifteen rolls each
The lino was in tightly wrapped cylinders about six feet long and when standing on end were taller than either of the two men. A carrier brought them on the day following the auction. Barney, stubborn as usual, and in spite of the well founded doubts of Don, insisted on leaning them against the side wall.
He had a verbal battle with the carrier who was in the union and refused to do more than help lower the rolls off his truck to the ground. Barney contended that it was part of his duty to assist carrying them inside but the man stood by his principles and refused to stir from the back of the truck. Unions were something else that Barney detested.
The wooden trolleys used to wheel in the weighty rolls were second hand. They were heavy and big with steel wheels and they had to drag them loaded with one roll a time across the room and up the extra foot on to the platform.
The fifteen rolls of lino were almost all in, standing on end, and leaning against the wall that separated them from the forge when fate intervened.
Barney's temper was not improved when the blacksmith came in to complain about a bulge that had appeared on his side of the wall. He had heard a creaking noise too, as though it was under strain.
Barney guessed the distortion was caused by the stack of lino. but he said there was no problem. George was not satisfied; he insisted it was no laughing matter and if Barney brought any more lino in he was likely to push the whole building over and involve them both in ruin.
She's as sweet as a nut," said Barney. "That wall'd stand up to twice the weight. If you're worried we'll bring some rolls into the forge and lean them against the wall on your side, that should do the trick." To prove the solidity of the wall he kicked the nearest roll of lino. A sudden cracking noise followed. Some vertical studs scraped loose at the bottom and shot outwards into the forge. They were followed by the fifteen rolls of lino which fell through onto the floor while the top of one landed in the fire causing an eruption of sparks and flame.
"Jeez!", said Don. "What a dill! Stubborn old bugger." He grabbed a bucket and dipped into the vat of water alongside the anvil, George, the blacksmith, did the same and they threw water on the fire until the forge was full of smoke, steam and flying ash as well as the stink of frying lino.
The blacksmith was aggrieved by the accident. ''You're bloody hopeless, Barney. 'I'll have to get the fire going again, there are some horses coming over and the owner wants them shod today. What the hell did you think you were doing, leaning all them heavy rolls of lino against the wall? You should'a known they wouldn't take the weight.'' ''You'll have to take all this stuff out pronto. I've got a business to run here.''
"Don, give him your bucket!"
"A bucket?" said the outraged blacksmith, "What the hell do I want a bucket for?"
Barney glared at him, hands on hips. "You can cry into it. You're not going to weep on my shoulder; I got work to do."
"Bloody oath you've got work to do. You're to get all this lino off my floor, and put the wall back the way it was."
He was shouting but Barney quietened him with a gesture. "No, listen. I should have me head read, but I like this place and I'll buy it from you, money in hand, and kiss you goodbye. Now, old timer, what's your price."
The blacksmith was taken aback. 'I don't know. I've never thought of selling the place. As far as I'm concerned it's money in the bank, and I can sell it when prices go up.'
'You'll be waiting a long time. Alright, we'll talk about it later.' Barney had been distracted by the sight of a vehicle that had pulled up in front of his premises.
A man had driven up in an antique motor car. The vehicle had a brass framed oval radiator and fastened to it was a metal badge representing crossed cannon barrels. A gas producer had been welded on to the folding luggage carrier at the back with two bags of charcoal tied alongside as fuel.
Barney paid no attention to the gas producer. These devices were a war time invention to make up for the shortage of petrol. It was discovered that gas from burning coke would do the job well enough. Most were dumped as soon as petrol rationing ended.
Barney was looking instead at furniture tied inexpertly to the broad, flat roof of the car.
"May I speak to the manager?" asked the driver getting out in front of the auction room. He had on an old fashioned flat motoring cap and an ankle length dust coat.
"He went mad and they shot him. What do you want?"
"Are you the manager?"
"No, I sweep the joint, and if you think this is the garbage tip think again, the nearest one's about five miles that way." He gestured vaguely with his thumb.
"My wife told me to bring some furniture here for sale by auction, but first I wish to discuss the matter with the manager."
"What's to discuss? We'll drag it off and sell it for you next Wednesday, no worries. We only charge ten percent commission."
"Yes, but I want a reserve placed on the furniture.. I want to see the manager and discuss the matter before I leave anything for sale. My wife was most insistent that I place an upset price with your firm so her furniture would not be sold too cheaply. We have heard that in auction rooms sometimes goods are almost given away."
Without comment Barney climbed on to the running board and stood on the little door mat fastened there by the makers so that fastidious travellers could wipe their feet before entering the vehicle. The rear half of the car was completely enclosed for the comfort of passengers but the driver was shielded by nothing but the windscreen and the roof.
Behind the driver was a small, sliding glass window, and through it he could receive his instructions from the car's owner
An Edwardian dining suite had been loaded into and on top of the old car. On the roof was a plush-covered, roll end couch with a carved lion's head snarling from the centre of the roll, the bottom half of a sideboard, an extension table with its legs sticking in the air, all made of light coloured oak.
Packed into the passengers' compartment were six old dining chairs and two elbow chairs, nicely carved and upholstered in plush, together with the mirror top unscrewed from the sideboard.
"We have had these things a number of years," explained the customer. My wife decided she wanted new furniture so we invested in a walnut veneer dining suite with frosted glass doors on the buffet."
Barney shook his head. "Just like a woman! I know my wife is never happy unless she's spending my dough. Take my advice, Pop, don't you put up with it! Women get ideas like this. You gotta show her who's boss at your place."
The customer raised his eyebrows at this. "It's too late. We already know who's boss in our house - she is! But to get back to the subject, she told me she wanted to put an upset price of twenty five pounds on what we have here." He gestured towards the car.
Without answering Barney roared a couple of times into the recesses of the auction room for Don. Presently Don, who had been shifting the lino, appeared on the footpath and sprang to a mock salute. "Reporting for duty, sir," he said.
“Give him a match."
Don, who was wearing a carrier's white apron, though rather dirty, reached into the big pocket in front and produced a box of safety matches.
"Give it to him," ordered Barney, indicating the customer who looked at the match and looked at Barney.
"Go on, have one and you can take your stuff a long way from here and set fire to it. A match is about the cheapest thing you can get these days and it's your best chance to clean up this old junk."
"What do you mean? This furniture is craftsman built; no one could make anything like it these days. twenty five pounds is a very reasonable price."
Barney now had his arm round the other's shoulder in a fatherly manner. "Of course it is. You're right, you're dead right; in fact I know a man down at the blind asylum, if he could see it he'd give you twenty five quid, no trouble at all."
The customer, who was fascinated and overwhelmed by Barney's personality, made no attempt to shrug the arm from his shoulders and Barney continued, shaking him a little to emphasise each point.
"You young blokes," he said, "that go scorching round the country in hot rod motor cars."
The man glanced at his ancient vehicle. It could have been wound up to about forty miles an hour in an emergency; but he said nothing.
"You young blokes with leather jackets and knuckle dusters splashing your money around giving girls expensive walnut veneer dining suites, you've got to face up to reality. These are modern times, you see. Your missus, she wants new furniture; well, so does everyone else. You say it's good workmanship, right! go to the top of the class. But who wants quality now? Who wants workmanship? People nowadays are like the little woman; they want veneer; they want frosted glass; they want stuff that's slapped together with glue and tacks. Give it a good kick in the arse and what happens? it falls apart in a cloud of bulldust. but who cares? That's what they want, that's what they get. Now I can see you’re a man of taste and discernment, so I'll tell you something." He paused but the bemused customer did not argue.
''One of these days people are going to wake up to what the manufacturers are doing to them. When all this junk furniture is clapped out they'll come looking for the good stuff they threw away. Take my word for it. Keep this suite another twenty years or so and it will be worth real money. Now, be firm with your missus; go home, tell her you changed your mind and you're going to keep the good furniture and throw out the junk, instead of the other way round. Go home now, be firm with her! Tell her I said so."
The man shook his head silently.
"You reckon she won't come at it?"
He shook his head again.
"Are you a man or a mouse? Lead the revolution of downtrodden men and strike a blow for husbands everywhere. I mean to say I'll come with you and hold the back door open while you make your getaway. I'll even help you carry out the walnut veneer suite and bring it down here for sale."
There was a negative response to this proposition also.
"Can't I sell this furniture at any price?" asked the man.
"Yes you can, my boy. I'm not saying you can't, but it's the price, you see. Everything in the world has a price, but for this stuff it's pretty low. You're asking twenty quid, well that's putting a hurdle in the way that a kangaroo couldn't jump over. Now I've given you some good advice about how to straighten out your marriage and keep this nice old suite at the same time. But if you're not game to take my advice we have to consider what happens next. I tell you what I'll do; we'll haul it all inside, put it up for auction on Wednesday and sell for the best price. We charge ten percent commission but I won't take a penny reserve. If it sells for a quid the lot that's too bad; but I don't want you or the missus grizzling at me about the price afterwards.
A reserve price and you can take your match and go, no reserve and we'll put it in the auction and do the best we can for you."
"You're not giving me much choice," complained the customer.
"You're another helpless victim of fashion," said Barney "I've seen it so often in this line of business. There was a strong man in here yesterday, just like you. You should'a seen him cry when he was telling me how much his missus had cost him over the years: it cut into his drinking money, and he couldn't afford more than five packs of smokes a day because of her wasteful ways.''
''These women are all the same; they want what the mob wants. You can haul your furniture to every auction room in Melbourne and you'll find it the same old story; junk they want, because they can sell it. Good stuff like this, no, because it’s old fashioned."
The customer at last gave in to this flood of eloquence, left the furniture for unreserved sale. Instantly Barney and Don started to unload the old car and with a good deal of quarrelling, exhortation and banter they had the suite set up and displayed as well as possible on the already crowded auction platform.
"Who is that man? Does he own the business?" enquired the customer as Mrs Spear, newly hired to do the office work, wrote a receipt for the goods.
''He certainly is,'' said the lady. ''He's a stubborn, workaholic eccentric, and he'd better build me an office because I'm not going to sit at a kitchen table taken out of stock and no way of filing anything except holding the papers down with bricks.'
The customer took the ticket and eyed it dubiously. "We may not get much for the suite but at least I have met three originals today. I must make a point of coming to the auction."
He went off to face his wife, but first had to start the engine of his car. It was a complex operation. With a small hearth shovel he topped up the supply of glowing charcoal in the gas producer. and adjusted various valves and controls attached by baling wire. Each of the four engine cylinders had to be primed from a precious reserve of petrol. With a can and funnel he introduced a few drops through four small metal cups in the cylinder head. He explained to Don, who was watching with great interest that the engine ran satisfactorily on charcoal gas but needed petrol to kick it off. After the engine had been primed the four cylinder cocks were turned off so no compression could escape. The final test was to see if the machine would actually go after all these preparations. The engine chattered into life at the first swing of the starting handle and the man ran and leapt into the driver's seat before it could die away again. He nodded to Don and drove off. The long handled gear lever and hand-brake were both mounted outside the car and as the speed increased Don could see the driver's hand changing gear.
Chapter – 3
Soon after eight o'clock one morning two men went to view an old house under sentence of demolition. It had stood unremarked in a shady street for over seventy years, soundly built, in the fashion of its day, of coloured handmade bricks and lime mortar with a slate roof now crusted with moss.
Across the front of the house was a veranda roofed with corrugated iron. Under the edge of the veranda roof an iron, lacework frieze almost concealed by ivy and supported by fluted iron columns, all resisted neglect and age. The veranda floor was paved with terra-cotta tiles decorated in a fleur-de-lis pattern and finished off with a basalt coping stone from which one could step down a few inches to the weedy lawn. The floor was starting to subside so the tiles were cracking here and there. In the middle of the veranda were two steps, also of basalt stone, flanked by terra-cotta urns and leading down to a yellow gravel path almost washed away and overgrown.
The veranda had sheltered generations of children, adults, and animals in its time. For almost forty years a sulphur crested cockatoo had lived in the house to be put out on the veranda in mild weather chained to a galvanized iron perch. It passed its days screeching now and then or repeating familiar phrases in a low, scratchy voice. It greeted visitors with more screeching and bobbing up and down on its perch.
The veranda had shielded the front of the house from hot sunlight and driving rain. Now the children and adults, dogs, cats, and the cockie had all gone their way leaving the trees and bushes to flourish for lack of a restraining hand.
A Moreton Bay fig tree had come to dominate the front garden stretching its vast limbs over house and lawn alike. The ground was now seamed and bisected with big, knotty tree roots that had gradually wrenched themselves from the soil, until there was no more smooth ground, only barren earth littered with broad leaves fallen from the tree.
Seventy years before Edward Sturgess and his wife, lately emigrated from England, had bought the land, distant from the city, for £35 and had built on it a very fine house, now hopelessly dated and old fashioned.
The house was uneconomic. Even more so was the tree which clutched greedily at hundreds of square feet of valuable real estate. Both would have to go to make room for a block of flats.
While the men were sitting in the cabin of their truck surveying the decaying house and garden the solicitor they had come to meet drove into the street and stopped his car behind them.
They got out, greeted one another, and pushed at the shabby wicket gate until it scraped open against the gravel path, which divided on either side of the tree to meet again at the front steps. It had rained during the night and they were forced to duck now and then to avoid water sodden bushes which overhung the path.
At the front door Wilkie, the solicitor, produced an old fashioned key tied with string to a cardboard label,
"I didn't know old Teddy Sturgess lived here," said Chip Dowd, one of the men, glancing round. "I guess it would have been a pretty good house in its day; o'course it's had the gong now."
"It's still sound," said the solicitor, who had opened the door after trouble with the key, "but it would be expensive to restore and people don't want old houses like this nowadays; they're a drug on the market."
"It's better than the old weatherboard joints we're renting," commented Tom Neerim, Dowd's mate. "I wouldn't mind having it. How long did Teddy live here?"
"The executor told me he lived in the house all his life with his sister Violet until she passed away some years ago and he died in his bed here last August. Neither of them married and a niece and nephew have inherited the estate. There was no will, of course, but they are the only known relatives. There should be no problems with probate, and the Trustee wants everything cleared up as quickly as possible."
"We wondered why we hadn't seen him for a while," said Tom peering into the dimness of the long passage which bisected the house. "He was lucky, his old man left him this place. He wouldn't have been smart enough to get one for himself."
"Chip was unusually animated as he reminisced about the late Mr Sturgess. "He was an old ratbag, that bloke. Gawd, some of the things he used to get up to! He was as mad as two bob watch."
The solicitor pursed his lips but said nothing.
"He was dead nuts on taking people to court and he was always after the Prime Minister or the Minister of Transport to get them up before the beak, or trying to collect damages from some poor bunny."
"Yes," agreed the solicitor. I suppose it was common knowledge that he was eccentric. He approached me once to start proceedings against the Commonwealth Electoral Office because he had been beaten in a Senate election. He was convinced that the returning officer had rigged the votes against him."
"Yair, I remember; he stood for the Vegetarian party and was going to abolish gambling, and drinking. That'd go over pretty big with the local publicans and SP bookies. How did you get on with the court case?"
"I didn't. I refused to proceed in the matter and advised him to forget it. Not that he did, of course. There are a lot of old law books in the house, so he conducted the case himself. After that he was declared a vexatious litigant and he couldn't sue anyone without the permission of the court."
"That was old Teddy, alright. It wouldn't have stopped him. Do you remember the time he tried to get a license to start a bus line? They wouldn't give him permission to sell bus tickets but no one could stop him selling lollies and ice-cream. Everyone that got on to the bus had to buy a bag of lollies or an ice cream. Then they got a free bus ride. The business went bust, of course. It couldn't do anything else, not with Teddy in charge."
The solicitor was interested by these tales of his late client but he had other things to do. He said, "Well, I am glad you told me all this but we did not come here to discuss Mr Sturgess's activities. What I have to get from you is a price for the demolition of the house."
"It won't be any picnic bowling over the old tree and grubbing out the stump," said Tom.
"Oh, forget the tree. We'll get the professionals in. I should think you would need specialized equipment for a big job like that. Just give us a price for the house alone."
The two men examined the house critically. They fingered the cast iron lace work that hung like rusty tapestry from the edge of the veranda roof. They kicked at the handmade bricks to see how easily they crumbled and pulled at the wooden laths where some plaster had fallen away in the hall. They examined the long passage that ran through the centre of the house. It was lit with a dusty rose colour from light leaking through the bright red decorated glass surround of the front door.
Most of the rooms were filled with old furniture and trash. Brass bedsteads set with artificial rubies: Decrepit wardrobes and chests: A mahogany hall-stand with bevelled mirrors and brass rails: Disintegrating wicker chairs and wash stands with chipped marble tops: Great bundles of newspapers that turned out on closer inspection to be decaying copies of the Age and Argus and various Henry George and Douglas Credit publications. They found an antique electric belt with an appendage. It had been devised and discreetly advertised by a long gone professor as an aid to the restoration of male health and virility. The finders thought it long past its use by date and threw it to one side.
One room was so filled with miscellaneous and unrelated articles and furniture that there was no place to stand and Tom Neerim had to walk precariously, as though on stepping stones, across to the window to raise the blind so they could survey it all.
The blind tore in his hand and he impatiently wrenched it down in a torrent of dust to let in the light. The room was like a dusty, untidy warehouse, crammed full, except for where a space had been left that was sufficient to let the door swing open. It was cluttered with neglected furniture, pots and pans, ice chests, books, steamer trunks, and discarded mementoes of a lost Edwardian age.
"Where the hell did he get all this junk from?" Tom wanted to know. "He must have spent years collecting it and dumping it in the house."
"Some of it came from Barney's place," said Chip."He went to every sale for months and bought heaps of stuff no one else would touch. Then he got crook on Barney over something or other and Barney turfed him out of the joint."
"It is just as well O'Connell did stop him from buying," interposed the solicitor drily. "if he had filled the place completely with this class of merchandise we would really have a problem on our hands. As it is you will have to allow for disposal of it all in your price."
"Yair, but Ken, what if there is anything valuable in this heap of kak, what happens then?"
"I can tell you, I had some valuers down and they said it was not worth carting away, and considering Sturgess's limited means and his taste in auction purchases, I doubt that the question will arise. If you can dispose of anything you find in the house at a profit, do so by all means. I am sure the heirs will not enter an objection. They have examined the house and taken anything of value, which was not much. All we want now is to clear the block as soon as possible."
"Is there anything out the back?"
"Yes. Sheds, outbuildings, assorted scrap-iron; everything has to go. There is even a motor car out there you will have to remove. I want you to clear everything off the block, except the tree - put it all down in the price."
Outside, in a leaky shed made of hand split palings and corrugated iron, they found an old car. It was a Dodge Six, that is six cylinders, with wooden spoked wheels and flat tyres. Once this old car had been a decent looking sedan but someone, probably the industrious Mr Sturgess, had hacked away the back of the body. Everything behind the front seat had gone and been replaced with a flat, wooden tray bolted to the chassis.
"It'd probably still go, you know," opined Tom, "you couldn't stop these old sods with an axe. You remember the way the Dodges used to keep going, don't you, Chip?"
"Too right. My old man had one like this, same model, I think. She'd plug away all day, as long as you liked. She was a real bottler."
"Yair, I know. At night you'd just give her a kick in the behind and leave her out in the rain. It didn't matter, as long as you kept the coil dry. Start her up next day and off she'd go like a beaut."
"That reminds me," muttered the solicitor fumbling through a folder of papers her carried with him. He produced a registration label for the old car. It was a current label that would not expire for another three months. "If your price is satisfactory you can have it, if it is of any use. I found it amongst his papers only the other day and there is so little time for it to run it hardly seemed worth while trying to get a refund on the unexpired portion."
The two contractors were delighted with this offer. "You little beauty!" said Tom. "If we can start this old bomb we'll slap the label on. She'll come in handy hauling stuff to the tip. We could use another truck. Old Gasper still chuffs along but she's not getting any younger."
"Who is," asked the solicitor, "but I have to leave you now. Of course whether or not you get the job depends on your price. In the meantime, if you will excuse me, I will lock up the house and leave you. Don't forget I want the quote in writing and I want it this week. If it is not in this week we will have to get someone else to do the job. Another thing, any contract will have to include a penalty clause; the job must be finished by the end of next month."
He locked the house, took the key, and left them in the back-yard to wander about beating the grass and weeds to locate the various items of rusty machinery that were mouldering away where the eccentric Mr Sturgess had left them.
"I reckon we could have the house down and the land cleared in a month," ventured Chip.
"Yair, a lot of them weatherboards and junk we can burn on the block. There won't be any fire danger days for a few months yet, so we should be sweet. The scrap-iron should sell alright and the oregon and stuff like that out of the house we can sell here or bundle up and take it down for Barney to sell. Most of the junk in the house too, we can put it straight in the auction."
"Ah, bull! He'd throw it at you if you brought it into his place; you know how he goes on when we bring in stuff he doesn't want."
"I dunno. He sold most of it once to Teddy; if he can sell it once he might be able to do it again. We can't be shot for trying and if we can pick up any dough like that, it's all bunce."
"Chip Dowd scratched his mop of fair hair and shrugged. "Alright, but you still gotta work out a price for Ken Wilkie. If it's not right we’ll end up getting bugger-all."
"She'll be right pal. Don't get 'em in a knot. We'll work out a price tonight and Marie can write to Wilkie for us. Come on, we'd better get back to Barney's and see if there's any more work on."
Chapter – 4
The rolls of lino lay all night where they had fallen, half in Barney's establishment and half in the forge, protruding through the crumpled wall Barney and his staff were too busy to move them all; they were preparing the room for Wednesday's auction. Everything had to be stacked in the order of sale while carriers and people driving cars with loaded trailers turned up bearing fresh consignments of furniture and odds and ends, all to be listed, numbered and auctioned without reserve.
Barney had rung Marie Neerim soon after the mishap with the lino to say that her husband and Chip Dowd were to come as soon as possible and start moving the rolls and repairing the wall, but the two men were not to be found. They had gone off on a job somewhere and were expected back about tea time.
Barney and Marie had a spirited argument on the telephone about the absence of the two men. Barney was of the opinion they should be around when required but Mrs Neerim retorted that they had other things to do and couldn't come running just because Barney wanted them; they would go broke if they relied on casual work at the auction room. She finished the conversation by giving him a firm ticking off for his rudeness and lack of consideration. Barney enjoyed the argument. He liked Marie, she was one of his favourites.
It was important to get the job fixed as soon as possible. Nothing could be done on Wednesday, and Barney did not want the men moving the lino or fixing the wall because they would be in the retail section of his premises.
Wednesday was auction day and the retail section would be closed and barred. It was a strict, though eccentric rule of the business that no retail sales were conducted, and all retail customers were turned away while the auction was in progress. If the contractors were working in that department they might be tempted to sell something or talk to retail customers.
The men appeared in the middle of the afternoon. They were in two vehicles stacked high with furniture. One was their decaying tip truck which was chattering and rattling towards its final end, the other was the cut down Dodge car, it had been resurrected from the weeds and rubbish through abuse and effort, and Chip's special skill as a mechanic.
Don glanced out at them through the door then put his hands over his eyes to shut out the sight. Both trucks were laden with chattels and old furniture removed from the Sturgess house.
"Oh, no!" he said as the men alighted and came up to him with beaming smiles. "It's not true - you can't do this. Listen, you blokes, you've got it wrong; stuff goes from here to the tip, not the other way round.
"There's no doubt about it, Don," said Tom Neerim grinning broadly, "you're lucky to have mates like us; we could have taken this anywhere, but no, we brought it to you, our old china."
"Where the hell have you been?" shouted Barney, bursting out of the auction room, "never around when you're needed, are you? and what's all this kak?" He shook one of the ropes securing the load on the tip truck.
"We been at the old Sturgess place since six o'clock. Ken Wilkie rang last night to say they were in hurry to get it flattened because the team that's going to take out the tree has been booked for the first of next month, and he accepted our price over the phone.
We were there first thing this morning to pull the lead flashing off the roof and strip the brass fittings out of the house before any tea-leaf could knock them off. We got a decent price at the scrap metal yard; that's a good start on pulling the old place down."
"That doesn't explain what you're doing with all this clapped out old, junk furniture; are you taking it somewhere?"
"Yes, me boy, to you. We had all these lovely antiques to dispose of and you were the first one we thought of -- you're lucky to have friends like us. Come on, Chip, get the ropes off."
Barney had cast a practised eye over the load and was soon satisfied that most of it was saleable, but he was not going to admit that to the two men.
"You're joking!" he complained. "I've seen better stuff sinking in to the West Melbourne swamp. I reckon you knocked this off from the Salvation Army depot. I got a job for you; it'll be better than trying to unload all this useless junk into the auction; why didn't you throw a few matches around in the house and shut the door?"
While he was talking in this vein the two men were casting off the ropes, quite unconcerned by his criticism. From one of the trucks Tom took two chamber pots, one slightly cracked, and a large bedroom jug all decorated with a pattern of roses and twining leaves. He handed these to Barney.
"Don't drop them," he cautioned. "Those thunder mugs are worth a quid each, if they're a worth a penny. They got a thousand and one uses around the home. I was reading on our table-cloth the other day about an artist who uses them to mix up his paint in; and look at that!" he said, slapping the side of a shabby piece of furniture that was about to be taken off the truck. "That's a genuine cedar duchess chest, and the mirror's not broken. Run a coat of tan boot polish over it and you'd get fifteen quid for it on a dark night with a gun."
Don recognized the piece being praised and turned to Barney. "I know that old dressing table. It was the last thing Teddy Sturgess ever bought off us. You two had a blue over something or other and I remember, as well as anything, him driving away in the old Dodge with the chest on the back. He was zig-zagging down the road and hanging out of the window and screaming abuse at you. He said he was going to sue for slander and mental anguish. What was all that about? I meant to ask you before, but it slipped my mind."
"Ah," replied Barney, "Teddy and the old boy next door to him got hold of a lease on a gold mine near Majorca. It's all clapped out now, it stands to reason, the miners in the early days wouldn't have left the place if there was any gold there, and Majorca's on it last legs. Anyway, just before the war someone with more money than sense built a poppet head over the shaft and tried to work it for a while. When they went broke Teddy and his mate hopped in and bought the lease for a few quid a year, and they were trying to raise money to get the whole thing started again. The way Teddy was going on you'd think it was the biggest money spinner since they invented the mint, and he offered to cut me in so they could put in a winding engine and a cyanide plant. Well, I wasn't going to have any of that, mainly because anything Teddy was in just had to be a fizzer. I said it was alright to chuck his wife's money down a hole in the ground, but he wasn't going to chuck mine after it. That made him jump up and down a bit and he wanted to fight me; then he decided to go away and look up his law books so he could sue me for malfeasance, or whatever it was."
"That's what we like about you, Barney," said Tom Neerim, as he and chip carried the chest into the auction room, "Always a model of tact; it's no wonder he got shirty. But I knew him a bit too and he was as silly as a goanna in season. Every scheme he ever touched seemed to go wrong somehow." He shook his head thoughtfully and they went inside.
Barney would have said more but he saw Freddy appearing round the corner. The youth's face lit up at the sight of the two vehicles and the activity of the men as they were unloaded.
"G'day, Barn, g'day Don." He ran forward. "Hang on, Tom. I'll give you a hand to cart the stuff inside."
"Back off ! Back off, Freddy!" roared Barney, 'don't you touch anything, you'll break it." He had had a painful experience due to the young man's activities.
"I'm just goin' to give 'em a bit of a hand."
"They don't need a hand, just get out of the way, clear off!"
"Ya minjy old cow, why don't ya give me a job? What's wrong, Barn, why've you got me in the gun like this?"
"Gawd, you're a nasty old bugger at times," said Tom who was standing in the back of the tip truck handing down some rickety Thonet chairs. "Give the kid a go! These auctions of yours are getting bigger every week and if there's only two of you how can you get out to buy new stock. Give Freddy a job and he can watch the place while you're out."
"I'd sooner leave Jack the Ripper in charge of a brothel. Forget it, Freddy; there's no way I'd give you a job."
"He wouldn't know if his bum was on fire," said Freddy "I could be a real help round this place if only he'd give me a job. What's wrong with me; I could talk to the customers better than him, anyway.
"Yair, he's a miserable old bastard, Freddy, always was from a kid. He'll give you a job one of these days; but don't ever make the mistake of being polite to him, that brings out the worst side of his nature C'mon, you can give a hand to get the stuff off the trucks and you can come with us tomorrow and put in a couple'a days helping with the old house.
"What about the wall? demanded Barney I need you blokes here to move the lino and fix the hole," said Barney.
"Sorry, pal, can't do it till Wednesday. We have to get more stuff out of the house before it's knocked off, there's a lot of copper piping built into the place and has to come out. We'll be right for your job on Wednesday."
"Forget it. The wall can stay down until Thursday. I won't have you in there while the sale's on. Useless pair of drongos. No wonder the country's on the bone of its backside; no one works anymore, except me."
His complaints were ignored in the interest of arranging Mr Sturgess's late possessions to advantage on the auction platform. The new owners made sure they were in the best position which was about two thirds of the way through the auction when the crowd would be largest.
Barney was instructed to be at his most eloquent when the time came to offer their goods for sale and not knock them down quickly to his favourite dealers just because they were vendors lots.
Having got everything displayed as well as possible they arranged the chamber pots and jugs and a few ornaments of dubious value on top of their furniture. Then filled them with faded artificial flowers that may have been, at at some distant time, grave decorations, saved by Mr Sturgess.
Chapter - 5
Barney attended the government auctions of the time where vehicles and non lethal equipment left over from the war were sold for the best price. Another blitz buggy came up for sale and he bought it, even though it was more shabby and more beat up than the one he had already.
It was towed to his premises because he couldn't start it. Neither could it be fitted inside under cover. It had to be left on the vacant block between the forge and a Chinese market garden
It should have been safe but he had underestimated the mechanical ability of the local youths. They noted that the truck had been left in the open for a few nights and decided to start it and perhaps have a joy ride.
One of them managed to start the engine of the vehicle about six o'clock on a Sunday morning. The silencer had been removed or fallen off at some time and the noise split the Sabbath calm, scattered it for miles in a roaring cascade of sound.
Blitz-buggies were sturdy vehicles and this one had been started in gear. It instantly took off, but out of control. It cannoned off an old car the local car-wrecker had also stored on the vacant block, tore through the fence of the Chinese market garden and demolished their fowl shed. This sudden onslaught had a catastrophic effect on the physical and mental well-being of a hundred or so chooks roosting contentedly in the shed and created a whirlwind of demented poultry until the buggy finally stalled in the middle of a bed of cabbages.
The market gardeners were having a Sunday morning sleep-in. Some of them had been to market to buy produce for resale and had not got to bed before about half past three in the morning.
They could get some sleep while travelling home because the horses knew the way as well the driver. He would wake up when they stopped outside their property and get down to open the gate to let them in. After that they had a quick rub down and a nose bag of food.
The sleepers were not quick enough out of bed to catch the fleet-footed youths who disappeared over a part of the fence still standing. They were too late except to impound the blitz-buggy, the only hostage left to them.
There was no doubting whose truck it was. The trail led directly back to the O’Connell's establishment and Barney soon guessed something was amiss because of several excited phone calls in Chinese to his home.
At last one of the gardeners calmed down enough to recover his English and explain what had happened. As soon as Mass was over Barney came along to view the destruction.
He was, he thought, very reasonable and sympathetic and offered to have the machine removed the same day, even though it was Sunday but the market gardeners were not satisfied; their minds were running more on substantial compensation for damages and loss of fowls and cabbages and replacement of fences. Barney discovered after a while that the buggy was not to be removed before a substantial cash payment was made.
Barney then considered himself even more reasonable. He did not intend to pay a penny damages to anyone but offered to give them the buggy in full payment of any claims they might have against him. They could sell it for the best price and keep the money as compensation for their loss and mental anguish.
Feeling that in time of peace a broken down blitz-buggy in the middle of their garden was not an asset they would have desired a racial confrontation soon developed in which Barney was roundly abused in Chinese and broken English.
A policeman was sent for who, appearing after a time on a bicycle, was appealed to for justice and vengeance against the culprit O'Connell. The constable, a big slow-riding man, in a tall, black helmet, was of the same parish as Barney, and they knew one another well.
He inspected the damage and entered the details in his book even an estimate of the loss due to ruined vegetables, fencing, and the shed. ''Anyone killed,or injured?' 'he asked.
No, no deaths or injuries to be reported, if chooks were excluded from the tally.
Hearing this the officer closed his notebook, put an elastic band around it, and returned it to his pocket.
It was satisfying to discover there were no injuries or deaths, not counting fowls that is; only property and pride and repose had been damaged.
He decided he did not have to do anything and that it was a matter for Barney and his neighbours to settle between them.
"It's a civil matter," he declared at last. "If yez want to take action against Mr O'Connell ye'll have to go and see a solicitor. If I find the person responsible for starting the machine there'll be charges laid; but be careful, no threats against Mr O'Connell or ye'll be up on charges yerselves of breachin' the King's Peace."
He said no more and, as no one could give him a description of those actually responsible for the outrage, he confined his actions to shaking his head and, before riding in a dignified manner back to the station.
Still being calm and co-operative, as he considered himself, in the face of oriental hysteria, Barney said, I'll get a ladder out of stock and drop the birds down to you, but someone will have to catch them.''
Half a dozen birds were perched unhappily in the branches of nearby trees. In a frenzy of fear they had managed to flap their way up to the lower branches but were now unable to get down without falling and were swaying and clucking unhappily while surveying the distant ground below.
Even this gesture did not appease the Chinese market-gardeners who felt that the occasion called for more positive action. Matters were not improved when two cheerful characters, Tom Neerim and Chip Dowd turned up early that same afternoon with their tip-truck.
Barney had sent for them and they came with their truck and a length of heavy chain borrowed from somewhere. After a lot of shouting, swearing and abortive directions they backed the truck on to the market garden, fastened the chain to both vehicles and began the job of hauling the blitz buggy out of its resting place.
The two men were good mechanics and after tinkering for a while they managed to repeat the miracle of having the engine of the vehicle roar into thunderous life; then, with Chip in the buggy and Tom driving the truck, they attempted to haul it out backwards.
Their first efforts were not rewarding. The bogged vehicle humped up and down a few times when Chip crashed into reverse gear and the rear wheels spun futilely even when rocks and timber were jammed underneath to give the wheels traction. The back wheels of the trucks spun round in a cloud of stinking blue smoke, but without gaining purchase. It was no use and matters were little improved when the spinning wheels tore carrots out of the ground and flung them at random. They were dangerous missiles.
The blacksmith, thought some extra weight would help and brought over two draught horses left with him for the week-end. These animals had been standing patiently in their dark stalls, munching feed or drowsing with their, heads hanging down, dreaming, little disturbed by the noise and excitement a short distance away.
They disapproved of being roused from their quiet stalls and came out snorting and tossing their heads. That was even before they caught sight of the labouring machines, the noisy crowd of people and unruly larrikins, and heard the overwhelming racket of the two engines both driven far beyond normal limits.
"I'll help," cried Freddy, running up. "Me old man kept horses and I know all about 'em. I'll take one if you like." He grabbed at the bridle of the nearest horse.
"Get off!" roared the blacksmith, "leave them alone or you'll get you a kick in the bum!"
Freddy paid no attention and the startled horses bolted into a section of the garden that had been kept free of marauding larrikins and idlers. The excitable youth and his mates took off after the runaways, ignoring pleas and shouts in Chinese and English to get the hell off the vegetables.
No one could stop them from making the situation worse; not the market gardeners, nor the few men present who were accustomed to horses and could have got the animals under control easily enough. They had no chance with the youths running round the market-garden calling out and waving.
"She'll be apples," shouted Freddy. "I'll get 'em for you in a minute -- lived on a farm all me life."
"Clear off, Freddy!" roared O’Connell. "Get out before you do any more damage." He knew something about horses too. During the depression he had made a living driving vegetable carts to the Victoria Market, until he got his own stall.
"That's alright Barn." retorted Freddy; "When I've fixed up the horses I'll give you a hand with the truck."
"Just piss off! If I find out who started that thing I'll give you a kick in the arse on me own account."
Freddy was the terror of the neighbourhood and the leader of a gang of youths that made frequent raids on neighbouring market gardens with special attention to the Chinese. No one knew who had started the Blitz Buggy, but because of his reputation he was what would have been described, in later years by the police as a 'Person of Interest.'
Freddy and his friends were too quick to be caught and chased away. They soon had the horses in a frenzy and bolting across the cabbages, over the flattened fence, and out on to the road where they nearly collided with a car or two before heading off into the distance.
With a few words he had picked up in a career at the forge the blacksmith took off after them and was seen a few moments later talking animatedly to the driver of an old Hupmobile who had stopped his car. Then he rode off standing on the running board and gesticulating as the car gently, but noisily accelerated away to pursue the runaway horses.
The blacksmith and his animals having departed interest now centred again on the struggling vehicles. There was nothing else to be done; everyone had to push. Even the Chinese market-gardeners were pressed into service. Up to this time they had stood by disdainfully, not considering it part of their duty to help, as no compensation had been offered, but had merely kept watch to make sure their property was not further damaged. Their only desire after the horses left was to see O’Connell, his machinery, and his helpers off their land as quickly as possible.
Apart from taming horses Freddy's next ambition was to drive the blitz buggy out of the paddock. Turning back to that problem they found him already ensconced in the driver's seat and revving the engine ready to take off. O’Connell dragged him out by the collar and helped him on his way with a cuff on the head but he soon circled back to see where else he could assist.
Everyone who could touch even the tiniest part of either O’Connell’s van or the tip truck crowded round the two vehicles to help make a mighty effort. They rammed potato sacks under the spinning truck wheel to give it something to grip on. Some tried to wrench the three inch by two inch timber railing away from the palings of the fallen fence to use as levers, but they were stopped by the indignant proprietors. About twenty or so children were authorised to climb into the empty tip-truck and sit as near to the back as possible to give the wheels better traction.
There was a burst of activity from both vehicles as the grunting crowd tried to rock them back and forth in unison. Two potato sacks shot out from under the wheel giving a hearty slap to one or two of the helpers and causing later unavailing demands for payment of laundry and dry cleaning bills. At the climax of all this effort the blitz-buggy rose as though about to roar backwards over an enemy trench and clanked out of the depression it had dug in the field and roared in reverse in pursuit of the tip-truck, tossing helpers left and right.
No one was hurt. The only casualties had been fowls, and vegetables. The paling fence had lost some panels which were now splintered and broken beyond any hope of restoration, and the teetering fowl house.
The market gardeners were hunting everyone off their property preparatory to a busy session of damage repair.
"Leave it there Barn, she'll be right," advised Tom Neerim, as soon as the vehicle was on firm ground away from Chinese property.
He busied himself with his partner undoing the shackles that fastened the chain to both vehicles. "Chip'll disconnect the plug leads and take off the distributor cap, we'll take the rotor out too No one else is going to start the bastard on you then." Chip began to pull vital electrical equipment out of the engine."
The others stood by and watched. ''Will you be wanting us again in the morning?" asked Tom.
"Yes, I will. I'm expecting forty rolls of inlaid lino first thing, and Don has to go out to an auction later." He looked across to the ruined market-garden. "What do those silly buggers want?" A group of Chinese men were shouting and pointing to indicate their damaged fowl shed which still stood, barely, but the back wall had been ripped out. They had already made an unavailing attempt to prop up the fence but it was too shattered and collapsed at once. They were shouting and pointing out the extent of this Sunday morning disaster.
"Are you blokes free for the rest of the day?" asked Barney. "I'll have to do something for them."
"We should get double time for working on the Sabbath," said Tom Neerim. "It's a day of rest, you know. Chip and me are regular churchgoers, we both went to be christened, then we were back again to get married, and they'll wheel us in for a last visit on our way to the cemetery.''
Barney soon settled the question of penalty rates for Sunday work. "Alright," he said, when he had made his position clear."Take what you want and fix it for them. O.K. John take it easy!" he shouted to the irate Chinese; "These velly nice fellers, they fix up better than new."
"Are you going to help?"
"Nup! like you said, it's the Sabbath, and no one pays me overtime. I'll leave you jokers to it. See you at six o'clock tomorrow morning. Here's a spare key to the joint, make sure you bar the doors, properly when you go, and the key locks up the forge."
"We won't be finished tonight, there's a hell of a lot of damage over there."
"Well, do what you can. If they can get the chooks locked up they'll only have to worry about the vegies. You can work on it again tomorrow If you can fix up the fence they won't have to sit up at night chasing kids out of the place."
''We can take some timber out of Teddy's house.''
''Yair, good idea.''
The blacksmith had got his horses back. The two were prized Clydesdales, but they were not racers and had not even been able to outrace the old Hupmobile car. George had ridden one back and led the other. They were now in their stalls and had been cheered up with a nosebag each of food. He had made a small Sunday fire instead of the week-day one that was usually blazing on the hearth and was boiling a kettle while Barney was talking to the two men.
Chapter - 6
‘Come in Barn!’ he called when he heard him on the other side of the dividing wall. ‘I’m jus’ goin’ to make some tea.’
O’Connell, a former drinker, but now teetotal, was never averse to a cup of tea and he particularly wanted to be on good terms with his landlord. He accepted a steaming cup and threw a horse rug over the anvil before sitting on it. It was Sunday and he was still wearing his best suit.
''How are the boys going to get timber to repair the fence? George asked.
''No big deal. They're pulling down the old Sturgess house as you know. They were wondering what to do with the roof and ceiling joists, and this solves part of their problem. They can use a lot of it for the chook shed and the frame for a new fence. We'll worry about the palings later.''
''Well, Mrs Spear that lady you just engaged to do the bookwork was telling me she wants an office. The timber from the old house would do the job nicely I should think.''
'Yair, that's not a bad idea. She's a terrible whinger, complaining all the time, but I could give her an office. It might shut her up and save a bit of money while I'm doing it.''
After this George lapsed into a reminiscent mood. ''Did I ever tell you how I come by this property?'' he asked.
He had, several times, but O’Connell was not going to spoil his mood.
''No. George, old feller. How did you get hold of it?''
''Did you know there used to a saw-mill here, since before the first war. It’s gone now but you can still see traces of it here and there.''
O’Connell knew that very well, but he was not going to say so. He had paid a solicitor to investigate the title and knew that the blacksmith owned it outright. What he did say was, ''What happened to the saw-mill?''
''Ah, well, it went bad during the depression. Most businesses did in those days and one day, when things were really tough, it caught fire. All the buildings were burned up but the fire-brigade hosed down the stock of timber, and saved it. The insurance company was pretty suspicious about that fire and the investigators went over the wreckage with a fine tooth comb. They couldn’t find nothing wrong, and in the end they had to pay out. No one was building in those days and no one wanted the timber, or the land so it just sat here vacant for a few years until I came along and bought it on six quid deposit and five quid a week. I must’a been mad. Times was really crook, but Mavis had a bit of money left by her mum and dad, so we scraped along on that.''
''You built these bloody big sheds, ‘didn’t you!''
''Yair, well no one wanted the timber, it was a bit twisted. and the corrugated iron’d been lying out in the open for years, so I hired a carpenter to help me and we put them up between us ''
''Did you have any trouble getting tenants.''
''No, some blokes rented it as a hay and corn store during the war and did very well. Then petrol rationing ended and their business started to die, just as mine's doing now. It was vacant about six months until you come along.''
Chapter – 7
The auction started at one o'clock Wednesday. The weather was warm and trying so Barney, who was already in shorts, soon stripped down to, singlet, boots and grey worsted socks; it was the garb he used to wear when stacking trucks with fruit during summers before the war. He also had a heavy leather apron that reached down to mid-calf. He wore it when working and insisted on retaining it when on the rostrum auctioneering. It had been presented to him by the blacksmith.
George's assistant had left the forge to learn panel beating. The blacksmith had no use for a second apron and even less prospect of getting an apprentice so he had given it to Barney.
By the time the sale had been going about an hour and a half Barney had reached his usual auction state, hot and red-faced. His frizzy black hair was damp with sweat and more sweat was running in rivulets over his face and dripping on to the auction sheets. Don and some of the dealers who had been recruited to help were working hard to show the goods for sale and then restack them when sold.
The retail department was closed and barred as usual but the two doors of the auction room were pushed open as far as possible to let in light and air. Even so heat and glare beat through the dusty skylight and corrugated iron roof meeting the heat of the crowd and warming everything unpleasantly.
Don intended one day to get up on the roof and paint the glass green to cut down the glare, but had not done so yet.
Unwary customers tripped over occasionally. They were picked up and comforted, or abused, depending on who found them.
Those attending the auctions put up with conditions of dust and heat philosophically. Discomfort was expected at Barney's auction sales but onlookers were more interested in picking up undoubted bargains than worrying about their surroundings, and anyone not prepared to cross swords with the auctioneer when necessary would be better off in a more refined auction room.
Someone had just bid two pound ten shillings for a double bed with blackwood ends, complete with a wire mattress and rails. Barney was in a pained state when considering the price. "Look," he was saying, "It's like pulling teeth trying to get a decent bid out of you lot. What do I have to say to you so-called dealers to get you to make yourself a quid? Do I have to knock you down and put money in your pockets? Two pound ten for this nice blackwood bed, it's ridiculous. Show them the wire mattress, Don. That's it; let the dog see the rabbit. Look at that; the wire hasn't been pulled up an inch. It's the best bed we've had in for months and if it isn't worth ten quid of anybody's money it isn't worth a brass razoo. Come on, open your purses and let the moths have an airing. All I want is a few intelligent bidders round here with a few bob to spend and we'd all make a fortune."
There was another bid of £3. "Alright, I'm offered three lousy iron men. It's OK for you lot, you don't have to face the owner afterwards and tell him that was all he got for his bed, less commission." This was not strictly true, he had paid a pound for it at the door some days before, but no auctioneer would ever admit to satisfaction with any price received at auction.
"Oh, come on, Barney," said Manny Button, whose bid it was, "knock it down and stop magging on, otherwise we'll be here all night. You're getting senile."
"OK, Manny," said Barney graciously, ignoring the insult. "That's yours and if you don't get ten quid for it you shouldn't be in the business.
Right, next is lot 165 a wool mattress. This will do you, Manny, it'll go with the bed you just bought."
"Is it marked," enquired Button, peering suspiciously at the mattress; you know I don't buy any mattresses unless they're clean."
"As clean as a hound's tooth -- show him both sides, Don. There you are, a genuine Crystal mattress. You don't often find them as good as this; alright, start me at £5 someone."
There was no five pound bid forthcoming but a customer in the front row offered one pound. Barney promptly took a two pound offer from Manny Button, slipped in a £2.10 bid from the wall on his own account and then knocked it down to Button, over his protests, for £3. Barney stifled his protests by shouting him down. "Win 'em and wear 'em, Manny," he shouted. "You know it's cheap, I know it's cheap, why go on about it? At three quid I'm giving you money, and well you know it." This was true, so the buyer subsided.
The auction sale proceeded equably for a time and without argument. The dining suite from the man with the old car had its moment of attention. It was sold to Mimi Chandos, for eighteen pounds ten shillings after spirited bidding between her and another dealer during which Barney ran them both impartially until he was satisfied the suite had brought a reasonable auction price and there was still a profit in the deal for Mrs Chandos.
After a time they started to sell the furniture from the Sturgess house. Neither of the two contractors was at the sale; they were busy at the demolition site and had complete faith in Barney's honesty.
Barney had noted when Sturgess's furniture was still on the trucks that much of it was original and though marked by years of neglect and mistreatment the lines were still good and most pieces could be restored.
He was pushing this line and getting prices to please Neerim and Dowd when they came to the duchess chest praised by Tom Neerim. Barney glossed over the damages it had sustained and after a short series of favourable remarks concerning its appearance and resale value it was knocked down for six pounds fifteen shillings to another dealer, Tommy Cave.
"OK," said Barney, "take it away." Don, and Manny Button laid the duchess chest on its back on a dining table with turned wooden legs just purchased by Cave.
"Right, the next lot is a fitted maple wardrobe with a lift off cornice." He was about to drone on but was interrupted by Cave who had been studying the underside of the duchess chest.
"Hold it, Barney! Hold it! That chest's got borer. It's rotten with it; look at the floor; if that isn't borer dust I'll eat it. You know I don't take stuff with borer. I withdraw my bid."
"That's bulldust you can see," retorted Don. "If there had been anything wrong I would have told you. No, Tommy, it's as clean as a whistle. Have a look afterwards and if it's got the borer you don't have to take it."
''No, no, that's borer dust alright. Keep the chest, I don't want it.''
"I don't know what you're worried about, Tommy," was Barney's contribution. "If it has got the ant you can soon fumigate it with that pipe of yours."
"Never mind my pipe," answered Cave who smoked a short, foul calabash pipe and had heard all those jokes before. "I want to know about the duchess chest. I just don't buy furniture with borer, they'll infest my shop."
"Alright," answered Barney, conceding the point. "Haul it down, boys and let's have a look. Gawd, you strike some pests at these sales, don't you."
The men retrieved the chest from where it had been stacked and stood it on the platform. Don pulled out some drawers and inspected their backs and sides. "There you are," he remarked, justified. "Nothing there. I'll give you a deener for every borer you find in this piece of furniture."
"What about the dust on the floor?"
"It's from the runners. It's drawer dust yer mug! If you were as old as this chest you'd be leaking dust too. Look, you feel these runners inside. Some of them are worn down nearly a quarter of an inch. I mean to say you have to expect a bit of dust when you get that much wear."
Don's expression grew intent. He had been feeling the drawer runners as he talked and now had touched something unexpected lying there.
There was about three inches of space between the sides of the drawers and the inside of the duchess chest. The runners were that wide, like small shelves on which things could be hidden and forgotten. Generally one found blunt razor blades or empty lipstick cases; this time it was different. Don pulled out a dusty old linen bag which had a drawstring at the mouth firmly tied in a knot. Inside the bag he could feel the texture of paper.
Don knew he had done the wrong thing as soon as he pulled out the bag. Better to have said nothing and come back later on the quiet to have a good look, but it was too late now; everyone in the shed had seen what he had in his hand. They all craned forward to see the bag; and all had the same idea -- treasure trove. It was the dream of everyone who dealt in old furniture, to find valuable trinkets or money lost and forgotten.
"What have you got there, Donny?" enquired Tommy Cave eagerly.
"I dunno, old cock. It's a mystery bag; just a minute and I'll have a captain." After fumbling for a short time he undid the knot and tipped the contents of the bag on to the shabby top of the duchess chest. Out of the bag fell a roll of money held by a rubber band that was perished, and broke as soon as he picked at it. The roll contained a number of slowly uncurling, red coloured £20 notes; the face of a long dead king looked up from the musty paper.
Barney acted as hands reached out from the crowd to touch this wondrous money; they had never seen such old currency. "Monkey fingers, monkey fingers!" he cried warningly and leapt off the cut down chair used as an auction rostrum. He slapped a few hands away, grabbed the notes and calmly got back on his chair.
"Thanks, Barney," said Tommy Cave, reaching out hopefully. "It's alright I'll take it with me."
"You'll take nothing!" replied Barney, making sure the bag was out of reach of any clutching fingers. "What makes you think I'd hand it over to you? I'm going to stick to this and don't think you're going to get your greasy paws on it."
"But it's mine!" exclaimed the dealer. "It's mine!" he repeated bobbing his head and gesticulating. "It was in the chest of drawers I just bought and that makes it my property. Don't try and put anything over on me, Barney. I'm a J.P. and I know the law. It's like buying a cow; if you buy the cow you buy her unborn calf too. Just hand it over and there won't be any trouble."
"An unborn calf, eh? Well, as soon as the old chest gives birth to a table call in and get your money."
"He's right, Barney." This was from Mimi Chandos. "Give him the money and let's get on with the sale." She was backed by Manny Button and one or two others.
Even now factions were beginning to form in the crowd. Button from his tremendous experience, real or imagined, started to tell an anecdote of a similar event that happened when he was an auctioneer at Christies in London.
"Give it to him," said Mrs Chandos. She was accustomed to sparring with Barney on matters of race, politics, and religion. Like his regular customers she took him at less than face value. "There's a principle involved here. The money belongs to Tommy because it was in his chest of drawers. Now, give it to him, Barney. You know he has the law on his side."
"He's got a lot of bull on his side," Don broke in. "He knocked the chest back because he reckoned it'd got the borer. I'm a witness for the persecution and I say he doesn't own the chest, or the money."
"Aw, pigs!" Tommy Cave was becoming heated. "What are you trying to get at, Don? Even if Barney does stick to the money illegally don't think you're going to get anything out of it; he's not that sort. Come on Barney, you're the richest man I know; why don't you give me what I'm entitled to? It's not much I'm asking because that chest was knocked down to me at auction and it's my property, and everything in it is my property too."
"Listen, Tommy, you can earbash me for a month of Sundays and it's not going to make any difference. You're not going to get a sniff of this bag, or anything in it. I don't know much about the law and I don't want to, but I do know you're not going to get this money because it's not yours. Now you can put that in your pipe and smoke it."
"He might be right," said Don thoughtfully. I remember Teddy Sturgess bought the chest off us and Barney got it off a bloke who was going over to the West. He and his missus split up; she cleared out with someone else, I think, and she got off with most of his furniture. All she left was this old chest, a bed and a few kids. You remember, don't you, Barney? You bought everything from him, except the kids."
"It doesn't matter where the money came from, I'm sticking to it," announced Barney. "As far as I'm concerned -- up the lot of you! I've got nine points of the law on my side, and that's good enough for me."
He pulled the mouth of the bag tight with the money in it, wound the cord a few times around the neck and calmly stuffed it into his hip pocket. "And you pipe down too, Don, and let's get on with the auction. You're carrying on like a lot of old whores at a picnic just because someone finds a bit of money. Just settle down and let's get on with it, otherwise we'll be here all day. Right, we're up to lot 225 a bow front maple robe with a lift off cornice; what am I bid?"
"Just a minute, just a minute!" shouted Cave, making another attempt to break through this stonewalling defence. "That isn't a little bit of money, it's a lot. You've got a big roll of notes there that might be worth hundreds of quid. I tell you, Barney," he roared, his short figure quivering with indignation and his cloth cap almost sliding off his bald pate. "I'm a Justice of the Peace, I know the law and I'm entitled to that money. Hand it over!"
Barney, from the height of the chair, looked down on Cave with contempt. "If a drongo like you can get to be a J.P. I should be Governor General. Gawd help us when a sawn-off jumped-up little runt like you can sit in a court of law ladling out half baked ideas and calling it justice."
"Steady, Barney, steady," said Manny Button soothingly, "this money may not be Tommy's but it's not yours either. How about handing it over to the police? let them work out who owns it."
Barney expressed his opinion of the police quite succinctly. He turned on Don. "Why couldn't you keep your big trap shut? You should've left the flaming stuff where it was?"
"Still can, Barn. No probs. We'll put it back and auction the chest over again, complete with contents."
Mimi Chandos had buttonholed the ex-Whitechapel dealer and was giving him advice. "Go to your solicitor, Tommy," she warned him. "It's the only way; you won't get any justice around here. If you want the name of a good man I'll tell you; but go to a solicitor and give him the full facts. Barney is not going to hand over the money whatever happens. If you want to go on with it see a legal man and find out where you stand.
No, no," she said, repressing him. "It's no use going on about being a J.P.; if this ever comes to court they won't let you sit on the bench so it won't do you much good, will it?"
"You wouldn't think everyone would carry on like this over a bit of money," observed Barney. "Just give them a sniff of it and good manners fly out the window."
"No, you're the only good mannered one here, aren't you, Barney? The only one that didn't act like a galah at the sight of a bit of loose dough lying around. You grabbed first and let everyone else get excited."
"Alright, Don, belt up," was the sour retort. "If we don't start selling again soon we're going to lose the mob. Come on, Mimi. Tell Tommy to pull his head in we've got work to do. Well. Ladies and Gentlemen, I might tell you that from now until the end of the sale there are quite a few items that came from the same place as the duchess chest, and they might have money in them too; you never know. But I tell you what we'll do, we won't look inside them; borer or not, money or not, you will have to take them where is and as is. Come on now, the money or the box?"
"Which ones are they?"
"That would be telling, Manny, and we're not saying. That's the charm of the whole deal. You pays your money and you takes your choice; but I'll give you a hint, the older and tattier it is the more likely it is to have come from the same place."
"You're all witnesses!" shouted Tommy Cave suddenly. He's saying now exactly what I was saying; if you buy furniture and there's anything in it it's yours. I'm going to take you to court over this, Barney, and I've got all these witnesses on my side."
"Yair, do that. Make the bloody lawyers rich; but it's not going to do you a bit of good. It's about time you woke up to the golden rule, Tommy - 'keep away from lawyers'. But if you won't learn from being told find out for yourself. Now, as I said before, lot 225 a bow front maple robe. Come on, Don, start throwing yourself round a bit. I want to get home before midnight, even if you don't."
The crowd packed into the shabby old building had been deeply stirred at the sight of the discovered treasure and its rapid annexation by the auctioneer. After this extraordinary event they were difficult to quieten and the excited conversations almost drowned out Tommy Cave who was addressing his colleagues trying to organize a mass walkout of dealers to punish Barney. He had little success, they were divided in their sympathies, there was a fellow feeling for him but they had come to the auction to do business and the fact that Barney had been quicker off the mark than anyone else was his good luck.
After the first excitement big Dan Altdorp and Fred Dorman, two dealers, had ignored Tommy Cave and bid closely when Barney resumed the auction. For about thirty lots afterwards they were able to take turns in buying the goods offered. While the dispute over the money raged in the background they had only the auctioneer to contend with. He was staging a counter demonstration by selling vendor's goods cheaply and his own at reasonable prices.
It was not long before the rest of the crowd realized what was happening and resumed paying attention. Tommy Cave's partisans soon deserted him and he was left to walk forlornly out of the place on his own while ruminating on various legal matters relating to treasure trove and the ownership of property.
Chapter - 8
After the sale was over, and while Don and Barney were sorting out who got what, they had another visitor, Freddy came sauntering in. He gone to some trouble with his appearance and was dressed in clothes they had not seen before.
"G'day, Barn. G'day Don." he said in greeting.
He was fashionably dressed in a tartan coat with velvet lapels. The colour of his shirt may have been ill-advised because it was bright green but his trousers were purple. The socks were tartan and the shoes,blue suede.
The young man seemed complacent as though sure his outfit would make a good impression and he had not spared the Brilliantine when dressing his hair.
Barney surveyed him sardonically. "Gawd, look at that. The bloody things you see when you haven't got a gun. What do you want here Freddy? Can't you see we're busy?"
"I come to see you, Barn. I got a proposition for you."
"A proposition! A snotty nosed kid like you with a proposition Go away, will'ya, we're busy. Go on, go back to school where you belong. Tell your teacher we hate the sight of you."
"Can't go to school," Freddy replied cheerfully, ignoring the insults. "They kicked me out cos I was a bad influence in class. I been expelled. That's why I come to see you."
"Well, I'm not going to give you a reference so they'll take you back again, you can forget that."
No, I'm finished with all that education rubbish. School's a bitch; anyway, the old man kicked me out too. He says he won't let me in the house again until I get a job. So I thought I'd come down and see you."
"Yair," said Barney cautiously. "What's all this leading up to?"
"I want a job with you as assistant storeman. Poor old Don, here, he's working his insides out keeping this place going. Why don't you give him a break and take me on? I'm a bloody hard worker, y'know."
"That'll be the day," retorted Barney. "I'll keep you in mind; if the war starts again and they want tank drivers you'll be the first I’ll send for."
"No, look Barn, fair dinks I need a job. I put on me best clobber to come and see yer and I want to get into the second-hand game and auctions, and all that stuff. How about givin' a man a chance?"
"He'd be alright," said Don. "You need someone in the place when we're both out and Freddy could do it as well as anyone. Maggie will be here to look after the paper-work." Maggie was Mrs Spear the lady who had a part time job doing office work without an office. Don continued, "we can get rid of his bag of fruit in the next auction. One of the country blokes might buy it to dress up a scarecrow."
Freddy looked down in some surprise at the maligned suit and felt the lapels to make sure they still graced the coat. All was well, his garments were as fashionable and tasteful as ever. "Don's right," he said, "You need me to help out; what happens if you both have to go out at the same time. And Don too, you're working the poor bugger into the ground. Why don't you give him a break?"
"What are you talking about? Don wouldn't work in an iron lung; if I was thirty years younger I'd show both of you what hard work was really like. Now, go on Freddy, there's no job for you here. Just bugger off and leave us to get on with it."
"You need a top class salesman here," Freddy persisted, "and an assistant auctioneer. I could do all that on me ear -- why don't you give us a chance?"
"You can't get a job here because I don't want trouble. You're trouble, Freddy and that I can do without. Now, out!" He gestured with his thumb towards the door.
"Aw - come on, Barn, have a heart. I could do this place a lot o' good. Y'can't get rid of me that easy."
"Yair, when I want a few more fences flattened I'll send for you. Until then don't hang around; people might think you belong here and that'd give the place a bad name."
"I'll be back tomorrow," said Freddy. "To see if you've still got shit on the liver; you might be easier to talk to; if you were any sort you'd give me a job."
"Go on, clear off while your luck's in."
Freddy departed grumbling. He was not the first or last person to be ordered out of Barney's establishment. Barney supervised everything and was chronically suspicious that customers might knock something over and break it or do other damage. It was not common, even then, for shop-keepers to order customers out of the shop, but Barney did it from time to time, his reasons varied.
He had painted a few no smoking signs around the place, he hated smokers, partly because he was a reformed smoker himself but mostly because the dry old building in which he operated was crammed with stock and a carelessly thrown match could ruin him. The surreptitious striking of a match or the smell of cigarette smoke would cause him to burst out in a tirade of abuse and order that either the culprit or the cigarette should be put out.
The sound of cupboard doors being slammed by someone inspecting with a view to purchase would have the same effect. If anyone tried to beat down his prices, or if he suspected they had no money, or were not serious about purchasing his goods they were promptly put out on the footpath.
Other actions would set him off. Sometimes he would be in a mellow mood and nothing would happen for weeks but there were enough incidents like this to make life interesting for his staff and customers who happened to be around at the time.
However the business was never short of customers, despite those who were ordered out or stamped out in a rage. His goods were in great demand and those who were prepared to stand up to him or answer back generally came to a good understanding with the man. He had faithful customers who came back repeatedly for entertainment as much as bargains.
Chapter – 9
Tom Neerim and Chip Dowd had promised to come in about one o'clock but for the morning they were hard at work wrecking the house. Any desirable or saleable material and fittings had to be got out before they were vandalized or stolen. A derelict, empty house was an open invitation for thieves and vandals.
A notice was nailed to the front gate and another to the telephone pole at the end of the street; it was a scrawled message that announced
'WRECK HOUSE DOORS WINDOWS JOINRY FOR SALE'
This sign enticed in a small number of bargain hunters and the front door was sold complete with letter slot, wrought iron knocker and the red glass surround which gave rosy tinge to the passage. They got ten pounds for that and another pound for delivery.
Later they sold the veranda posts which were uprooted and delivered after a tremendous effort and some danger from the collapsing veranda canopy, which had to be propped up with timber. Chip Dowd was nearly spiked by the fall of the cast iron frieze but received only a few grazes which he was able to ignore.
Later on, if not sold on the spot, they would rip up the architraves and timber mouldings to smuggle them into one of the auctions. They did not know if Barney would accept flooring, and doors, joinery and windows for sale, but Don would.
Freddy had the job of ripping down the lath and plaster interior of the rooms and carting the debris out to be burned on a bonfire in the back yard.
On the first day an old man who lived in the house next door came in to watch and, because the weather was mild, he stayed a long time to reminisce on the changes he had seen in the district over the years. Later, to shut him up, they appointed him billy boy and Freddy gave him some scrap timber and the old black billy to make morning tea. The old man claimed, amongst other things, that once, years ago, he had been a bushman a miner and an expert maker of billy tea.
''You should swing the billy hard, round and round, when it starts to boil,' he said. 'It tastes better that way when the leaves are properly infused, but don't slow down at the top of the swing. You'll have a shower of boiling tea if you do that. It won't do your head much good. You'll have to do the swinging, Freddy, I'm too long in the tooth now. Old age is a bugger, and not for weaklings.''
In the back-yard was a healthy young sapling that would presently be a victim of progress, It yielded up gum-leaves and twigs to give the tea that proper tang so prized by bushmen.
"That's not a bad brew, Albert, thanks," said Tom Neerim, sipping a cup of tea the old man had passed him.
"I knocked off some of me granddaughter's biscuits and a bottle of milk. Just as well she's out for the day! She'd be as mad as a wet hen if she knew I was sitting out here with you blokes eating her biscuits. I dunno, a man can't do anything these days; she's always following me round wanting me to sit down or take a nap, or something!
I don't like going to bed, you know. People die in bed. Every time I wake up in the morning and find myself in bed I think, 'Gawd! they've got me, I'm a goner!' and I hop out of bed as quick as lightning. Me, I'd like to be shot by a jealous husband; there's no better way to go."
"Ah, turn it up, Pop!" said Chip Dowd, "You'd give a man the heebee jeebees. A young bloke like you shouldn't talk about dying."
"I dunno. You'll start thinking about it yourself when you get to my age. Though poor old Teddy Sturgess was too busy to give it a thought until right up to the end. Did you know Teddy? He wasn't a bad old stick. Me and him had an interest in a gold mine but he up and died on me. He was a bit cracked, you know. Always going on about the government, and the church, and communism, and the yellow peril, and the depression, and Gawd knows what else. I reckon he was the champion ear-basher I ever met in me life."
"Champion ear-basher, was he?" said Chip I bet the championship wasn't any walkover; not with you around."
Albert ruminated for a while as everyone sat round sipping their tea and gazing pensively at the fire. "I'll tell you something that will interest you," he said.
"I knew Tommy Bent; that dates me a bit doesn't it? Tommy's been in his grave many years now but he was Premier of the State for a while and Mayor of Brighton quite a few times. I could tell you a few stories about Tommy if we had the time. They say he was a dairy farmer for a while when things got crook and he lost his seat in parliament. But he bounced back, and later in life he never passed a cow without raising his hat to it. He said cows fed him and his family in the bad years so it was only right to be polite to them."
"His suburb was proud of him too; he was a good man for his city. After he died they put up that statue of him down on Point Nepean Road. Did you notice the way he's got his hand held out as though you could slip something into it? They say that was about right for old Tom. Though round Christmas time someone would put a beer bottle in his hand, and that was right for Tom too."
After a lot more of this the two contractors managed to impress on the old man that morning tea was over and it was time to go back to work. "Thanks for the history lesson old feller, and tell your granddaughter, 'thanks for the milk and biscuits.'"
"Don't you worry about that; I'm not goin' to say nothin'. She'd have me guts for garters if she knew I was letting you blokes get stuck into her biscuits. Anyway it'll be alright; she'll think the grand-kids have been at them and won't say nothin'. Me grand-daughter and her husband and kids are living here because they can't get a house or flat and its like bloody hell turned loose sometimes. You should have heard them going on when I gave one of the kids a whack over the ear-hole; cheeky little bugger! that's why I'm glad of the chance to clear out and find some-one to talk to."
"I wonder who winds him up," said Chip when the two men were safely up amidst the oregon skeleton of the old roof now stripped of its slates. "He goes on like a married magpie. I couldn't get a word in edgeways and I wanted to find out what Jim said in his letter."
That morning Tom had received a letter from a friend who had migrated to Queensland to grow pineapples, but the old man's non-stop talk had put a stop to any discussion of the letter's contents.
His rheumatism wouldn't let him climb to the roof, and join them. By sitting down out of sight on what was left of the plaster ceiling, and the ceiling joists, they had privacy and a peace which was not available on the ground.
Tom produced the letter from his hip pocket. "I'll read it aloud. I think I got it all, but my reading is about as good as Jim's writing. I think some of the words are spelt wrong too, but I got the gist of it all."
They could hear Freddy in the house knocking out the plaster and timber of the inside walls but it did not disturb the two men.
The letter was ill-written but Tom managed to work out without too much difficulty what it was all about, he read-
"Dear Tom, well here I am up on the farm like I told you I would be. How are you hows Chip me old china and all your famlys. It's a very nice place I got here 500 acres not far from the coast with a view over the ocean and the sweetest land you ever seen in your life. Don’t think its easy Tom, its not and I never expected it to be. You don't get anything free in this world without hard yakka, and that’s what I got. I often think of you and Chip when I'm working away here I wish you were here so we could make a go of this place between us and that is mainly why I am writing to you. Why dont you and Chip up stakes and come up to Queensland and join me Bring your famlies and your furniter because theres another house on the block and you can have the biggest one. I tell you take me up on this and we will split the profit three ways and when you can aford it Ill sell you a third share each in the land. I've tried employing labour and it just dont work. I know you blokes dont know much about farming, but I been a cocky all my life, except when I was working in the city with you, and so was my old man before me. We can make a go of it, dont worry about that. Dear Tom rite and let me know what you decide. If you don't want to be in it I'll have to sell some of the land or else move to a smaller place. I just can't run a big block like this on me own. Hoping to hear a favorable reply, Yours, Jim."
Tom put the letter back in his pocket and they sat quietly for a minute musing on the dream of 500 acres of sun-drenched pineapples in far off Queensland.
"What do you think?"
Chip shrugged. "Sounds alright. Jim said it himself, and I think he's right, it looks like bloody hard yakka to me. We'd have to work like thrashing machines from daylight to dark playing nursemaid to a bunch of pineapples."
"We're doing the daylight to dark bit as it is,'' said Tom, ''Only this might pay better; and if we can buy a share from Jim at least we'll own something. The way we're going now we'll end up on the bone of our backside not owning anything. I've always wanted to go on the land. I reckon it'd be alright being a cocky, and I've been thinking about it and I'd like to take Jim up on his offer. The girls are alright too. I don't think they'd mind being on a farm. Though Jim'd have to move out of his house and live in a tent, or a shed."
"Why would he do that?"
"To keep the peace. We can't expect two women, and two families, to live together in one house and not fight."
"The girls would get on alright, if the house was big enough. They're mates."
"They'd fight like cat and dog," retorted Tom decisively; "You can't have two women and their kids living under the same roof, it wouldn’t work out, it never has, and there's no way you'd get two women to share the one kitchen. I tell you what, if we do go up, Jim would have to give us both houses and we could build him a humpy of his own to live in."
"It's a bit rough isn't it to tell a man who owns two houses that he's being tipped out of both of them."
''Him being a bachelor it wouldn't matter so much. It's no use arguing about it, mate. I suppose the place is lousy with snakes too, which is a thing I hate. But, alright, if you're interested, I'll get Marie to write back and ask him about the houses and get some more details. Anyway the girls will want to know how far away the schools and shops are from the property. Jim wouldn't think about a thing like that unless you asked him."
Having got to this point, the men thoughtfully resumed their labours on the dismemberment of the old house while their billy boy waited down below ready to resume his monologue at the first opportunity.
Whenever they were working in the district, the two men had the habit of visiting McWhinney's pub for a while before going home. It was close to Barney's Auction and they would meet Don, the storeman and any other cronies who had happened to gather for a drink before the hotel closed at six.
They parked their tip-truck out the front and went in after a sharp verbal exchange with Freddy. He was going to march into the pub with them but they ordered him to clear off. Being under age, not yet twenty one, there was no way he would be served a drink and McWhinney would be in trouble with the police if he was seen on the premises. He made a number of rude gestures and shouted insults at them as they pushed their way into the noisy bar.
Don was already there, standing back from the crowd and thoughtfully sipping his beer. He was still thinking about the money in the chest.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said he when the two contractors appeared at the door. "Come into the office; I think there are some refreshments available." Don quickly finished his glass and held up three fingers to the barman above the heads of the other drinkers whose noise made ordering difficult except by sign language. All the drinkers were men packed closely round three sides of the rectangular bar, drinking, talking, shouting, or calling for more beer before 6 o'clock struck, at which time they would be ejected from the hotel.
"How did the auction go? Did you do any good with our stuff?"
"Yair, pretty good. You'll be pleased with the prices but you should'a been there. We haven't had so much excitement since Ma got her tits caught in the mangle." He got three drinks from a barman, scarcely spilling any on the other patrons as they were passed across.
"You remember that old chest? The one you said needed a coat of boot polish? Well, it was loaded, mate, loaded." He drank some of his beer. "I found a bag full of money in it, must'a been well over a hundred quid in all, or maybe even two hundred."
"Go on! Why didn't you count it?"
"Didn't have a chance. Barney got the lot, he grabbed it so quick my head's still spinning."
"Well that's our dough, if it was in our furniture it must be ours. We'd better come round tomorrow and see Barney about it."
"You'll be busy, my Gawd, you'll be busy! Anyone that wants to get money off Barney has to get up pretty early to do it; he chucks it around like a man with no arms."
"We're entitled to it, aren't we?"
"I dunno about that, but if you want it you'll have to join the queue. Tommy Cave, he's one of the dealers, nearly had a baby on the spot, he reckoned the money was his. He'd just bought the chest at auction and knocked it back because he thought it had borer. Jeez, he went off like a packet of crackers when I found the money and Barney hopped in and took it right from under his nose."
"What's it got to do with him? If it's our chest, then it's our money."
"Ah, yes, but you try and get Tommy and Barney to see it that way. Tommy says he bought the chest and he bought what was in it too; and don't forget, the news is going to spread. When Teddy's heirs hear about this, they'll be down here with their tongues hanging out. You know what they say - 'Where there's a will there are relatives.' I don't knowwho's entitled to the money but whatever happens it's going to be a real balls up."
"We got some evidence on our side too. Ken Wilkie, the solicitor told us we could have anything valuable in the house. You heard him, didn't you, Chip?"
Chip nodded his assent to this query. "I'll get up in court and say it if I have to - it's true!"
Don was doubtful about Chip's quality as a witness. "That may be," he said "But something tells me Wilkie's going to have a shocking lapse of memory when you try and remind him about what he said. Another thing too, Barney owned that chest once; he bought it from a bloke that was shooting through to the West. Perhaps the money belongs to this character; it might even belong to Barney."
"Honestly Don, what do you think our chances are of getting it from him?"
"You got Buckley's, mate. In fact you got two chances, Buckley's and Nunn. There's only one thing Barney loves, apart from the Pope, and that's money. I reckon he'd crawl past Marlene Dietrich to get to a quid note."
The two contractors talked for a while of the possibility of making Barney see reason in the matter of handing over the money, but received little encouragement from Don. After a while, with refilled glasses in their hands they wandered out of the front door of the bar away from the noise and oppressive body heat, on to the broad front veranda facing the road.
There were a few wooden forms set against the front wall of the aging pub where they seated themselves and gazed at the passing traffic.
They knew that it would not long remain like this. The rumour was that the brewery was going to put up the money so McWhinney could enlarge and improve the place. The veranda would be knocked down to make more room for car-parking. They had heard that the structure was to have a brick skin put on the outside and the ground floor area would be enlarged to make more bar space.
"Kath O'Connell still wants to work with us. She made her old man hire some pest control people and they sprayed the insides of the sheds on Saturday, after we closed, and told us not to go into the place again until Monday."
"Did it work? Did it get rid of the spiders?"
"I think so. Kath came in on Monday and had a look round, and said she was going to work with Maggie. But Barney'll get the rounds of the kitchen if he doesn't supply an office. You blokes could build one for her. But don’t hold your breath, Barney hasn’t been told yet about her plan to join the work force."
"Thanks Don, and good luck with Kath, but don't forget, Barney would make a hell of a father in law."
Don went red at this remark, but did nothing to belittle the thought of being related to Barney by marriage.
It was Chip's shout and he went into the bar carrying the glasses for a refill.
Tom changed the subject. "We're thinking of moving to Queensland," he said. "A mate of ours who's running a pineapple farm up there wrote and said he'd like us to come and join him."
"Are you going?"
"I dunno, we're thinking about it. Five hundred acres, that's a bloody lot of pineapples. It's on the coast highway with a view of the sea. I've never seen it but old Jim, he's the owner and an old mate of ours up there, sent a couple of post-cards and letters."
''Have you known him for long?"
''We knew him before the war. Later he was with our mob in New Guinea, and a dead shot with a rifle. He killed more Japs than the rest of us put together.'
"Queensland's a long way away. How would you get there?"
"The old International tipper should do the job; and now we've got Teddy's old Dodge; between them they should haul our stuff to Queensland."
"I wouldn't back them to haul you home," retorted Don. "What happens if they break down on the way? You'll be stranded out in the back blocks somewhere with a load of women and kids and furniture. You'd be stuffed."
"Yair, we know. That's why it'd be beaut if we could get that dough off Barney. See what you can do for us will you, Don."
Chapter – 10
While the men were chatting on the verandah of the pub Barney and the blacksmith were also talking. They were sitting by the forge before going home for the night.
"Yes," Barney was saying, "I hate the markets. I always go there of a Friday with the missus for our fruit and vegies. We go to the Vic. market but I don't care for it much, it's only because the stuff's cheap.
You know I was brought up on a pile of cabbage leaves at the markets. I can never go round any of those places and smell the vegies and horse dung without thinking of the old man. He had a fruit stall at the market and that's why I haven't got any particular behind to speak of now, on account of the old man worked it off me when I was a kid. He was the hardest man I ever knew; I'd work like a dog for him all day and then get a clip over the ear for me trouble.
When I was old enough though I fixed him. One time we were loading melons on to a truck. I had to throw them up so he could stack them. Well, he was swearing at me because I was throwing them wrong, or short, or something. He kept telling me to throw them at his nose -- that's the way you do it, you know -- if you're tossing stuff to someone aim for the nose, it's always up to the other joker to catch what you're throwing at him. Well, I got jack of this, I was about fifteen at the time and pretty strong, so I picked out a nice firm melon and let him have it right between the eyes, just as hard as I could. Lucky for both of us there was a pile of hessian bags on the other side of the truck because I knocked him over backwards, arse over tit and he landed on the back of his neck on the bags. He was alright afterwards, the swelling on his nose went down after a week or two and they let him out of hospital, but I took off; I didn't wait around to find out what was going to happen."
It was years before I ever spoke to him again. I used to go home during the day and see Mum; but the old man, no; I couldn't have him on at any price. We both got over it in the end and I think he forgave me; but we were never what you would call close. Shooting through like that didn't do me any harm though; I owned four fruit shops by the time I was twenty one."
''Yair, and your business here is going like the clappers too. You'll have to take on extra staff, just to keep ahead of the game.''
''Well, me daughter Kathleen has made up her mind at last. She wants to work here. But I don't want her in the place. She can be a bloody nuisance .''
''I seen her once on your first day here, she didn't like the spiders, they've never worried me, but she seemed a nice kid"
''Yair, she made me pay to have the place deloused. I'd sooner have the spiders than the money it cost. But how are you getting on?''
''Not too good. If it wasn't for the Chows and their wagons and horses I'd be out of work by now,'' said George. They grow vegies and stuff then go out in the wagons, knocking on doors and selling to everyone they can. Charley Wing was telling me the other day they had enough money now to go back to China and live like emperors."
''Doesn't sound like a good idea from where I'm sitting, there's fighting going on over there. Oh well, it's their business.
Barney looked at some unfinished work leaning against the wall. "I see your knocking up a pair of steel gates for someone. Why don't you get into that line. Forget the horses and advertise that you're an expert in wrought iron. Gates and such made to order."
"Oh yair, I'm still a tradesman, a pretty good one too, even if I say so meself. I could set up in the wrought iron business, make ornaments, gates, and stuff like that. But I dunno, I'm too old for that sort o' caper.''
"Well, why not sell out and retire? I told you before I'll buy you out if the price is right. Just tell me what you want."
"Yair, I know, and I've talked it over with Mavis. She said if we can get five thousand pound for the property we could sell."
"Of course you'd sell if a buyer was mad enough to offer you five thou. Anyone would sell at that price. For five thousand quid I could buy a mansion in Brighton. Instead we're talking about the block of land we're sitting on.''
"It's built on. Don't forget that."
"Built on, yair, three bloody clapped out old sheds. We're talking land value here, the sheds are worth nothing Look, I'm paying you four quid a week for two sheds, throw in the forge for, say, another two. That'd be six quid a week or three hundred and twelve pounds a year, right?"
''I dunno,'' said the blacksmith. ''I'd need a pencil and a piece of paper to work that out.''
''Believe me George, it's right. Now, in ten years you'll have collected three thousand one hundred and twenty pounds off me. But you don't have to wait ten years. If you say yes I'll buy it at that price and give you a ten percent deposit by the end of next week, and the balance in full at thirty days.''
"There's no doubt about you, Barney," said Mr Wilson admiringly, "once you get going you could talk the leg off an iron pot; I dunno what to do. What you're saying sounds alright, and Mavis has been on to me about retiring.''
''Yair, do that, Look at it this way," said Barney. "You're a man like me that's worked hard all his life. Now you want to retire and have a little bit of comfort. But you can't get the pension, not the full pension anyway, because you've got two properties in your name. Now you still owe on your house, don't you?
The blacksmith nodded.
''Alright; I'll put thirty one hundred and twenty cash for this joint into your hot little mitt, and kiss ya goodbye. No argument, you can have it clear and I'll pay legal costs and anything else. Now, with the money you pay off the balance owing on the house, you get new furniture, you and the missus get your teeth and specs fixed up, maybe you even have a little holiday. You spend enough so that you're just inside the limit. It wouldn't hurt to have a new car, maybe even give a bit to the kids. You can have your own house and car, and so much in the bank and then you can apply for the pension. You get that my boy and you're sitting pretty, everything's taken care of and you've got an income for the rest of your life."
"What you're saying is quite right, but I'd like to have a property to leave to the kids. They're good kids and I want to do the right thing by them."
"Blow the kids! You look after yourself! You should know how it is; two parents can look after ten kids, but ten kids can't look after two parents. Besides you'll be leaving them the house, and if you've got any sense it'll be clear of all debt; they'll fight over that just as much as they will over this block of land here."
"It's a hard decision," said the blacksmith. "You're offering a good price now but property is rising in value all the time; if I stick to it it'll be worth a lot more in a few years."
"Of course it will; you don't think I'm a bloody dill, do you? If I was to offer you that price in ten years time you'd laugh at me. But don't forget, you might not be around in ten years. By that time you might be pushing up daisies and your kids will be fighting like cat and dog over the property. You take it now while you can still enjoy it. You've been bashing away at the anvil all your life, but at your age you're going to find the hammer harder to lift every year. It's about time you had a bit of peace and quiet to do what you want to do."
The blacksmith paused and came to a decision. "O.K. Barney, I think you're right. Mum and me could use a bit of the folding stuff right now. You give me three and a half thou. as well as paying all legal costs and we'll call it quits. I can't sell the blacksmith business so I'll just shoot through and leave it, you can have the lot."
I didn't say three and half thou. I said three thousand, one hundred and twenty.'
No, it was me said three and a half, and I meant it. You're a good bloke, Barney, but I can't give away our future. I have to think of Mavis if she's left on her own. It's Sydney or the bush, Barney. Three and a half thousand and it's yours.''
"Done!" said Barney. He fished a roll of notes from his pocket, not the money found in the chest, and peeled off £100 which he counted and handed over. "There's a preliminary deposit to show we're both serious. You'll get the rest of the deposit by the end of the week. We'll go down tomorrow morning first thing and see Wilkie, the lawyer man and he can fix everything up."
"Righto Barney, it's a deal. I'll get a pen and write you out a receipt."
"No, don't bother. If you were going to take me down over a lousy hundred smackers you'd do it whether I got a bit of paper off you or not. A handshake's good enough for me, old feller. Just you front up here tomorrow morning at eight o'clock and we'll get this thing underway."
"Do you mind me asking what you're going to do with the place."
Wilson was a little forlorn after suddenly deciding to sell; his impulsive decision meant that the old sheds in which he felt comfortable were no longer his. He was not normally a decisive man and had been taken aback at the way events had suddenly speeded up, but there was no turning back. The hundred pounds was in his pocket and there was no way of returning it, even if he wanted to.
Barney paused and thought about the question. Things had suddenly speeded up for him too. He knew the blacksmith had been wavering but had not expected to buy the property off him that very night. "I haven't thought much about what I'll do with it," he mused. "I suppose I'll just get more stock in and work a bloody sight harder. I won't alter the joint much, though I suppose I might knock out some of the inside walls and turn it into one big shed. The outside's alright, I'll leave it as it is."
Wilson had doubts about the last part of this statement. Though not a fussy man he was aware of the deficiencies of his building and had been troubled for some time at the thought of the expense involved in knocking it down and rebuilding. There was no way it could pass any tests regarding appearance, safety, or convenience. However, if Barney was prepared to take the ramshackle building as it was without any demands as to renovation or alteration he was not going to argue on the subject.
Chapter - 11
At ten past nine the following morning Wilkie, the solicitor, arrived at his office to find two unusual clients in the waiting room.
The two men had been waiting for the office to open since a quarter past eight. It was incomprehensible to Barney that anyone could start work after eight thirty at the very latest. Just as it was impossible for him to believe that Don could open up for trade and settle down efficiently to a day's work without him. By the time ten past nine and the solicitor arrived together he was as impatient as he had ever been and as Wilkie came up the stairs he could hear the blacksmith being harangued on the total uselessness of people who couldn't get out of bed in the morning and arrive at work at a reasonable hour.
"You've come about the treasure trove," suggested Wilkie when he encountered them Wilkie had met Barney before and the story about having found money in the old duchess chest had spread rapidly. Even the Public Solicitor's office had been telephoned about the incident in the auction room and had already begun to press the claims of the Sturgess estate.
"Forget it," growled Barney. "The money's all right where it is, now I've got some work for you to do. If you'd get up in the morning and attend to your business instead of staying on the nest maybe we could get something done. Now look, I'm buying George Wilson's property from him, it's those old sheds on the main road." He thrust a piece of pink paper with writing on it into the hands of the solicitor. "I'm paying him three and a half thousand clear. I gave him a hundred quid cash last night and this is a cheque for three thousand four hundred quid for the balance; and I'm going to pay you separately."
Wilkie studied the cheque. It was difficult to read and looked as though the mythical inky spider had been crawling across it. He had no reason to suspect that the cheque was not good. Barney had the reputation of being a wealthy man and apparently had enough funds to cover this cheque if nothing else.
"I take it you want me to act for both parties," he said.
"That's what we're here for. You needn't think we're going to pay out for two lots of lawyers. You can do the job for both of us. Now you know the address. It's George Wilson's property down on the main road that I'm buying. Come on, get the girl to type out the deed, or whatever you call it, and we can both get back to work. We haven't got all morning to waste even if you have. Some of us have even been known to start work before half past nine in the morning."
The solicitor shook his head. "You can't do it this way because it's not as simple as you think - the law's delays, you know. I can certainly issue you with a receipt for the cheque and put it into my trust fund until the matter is settled, whereupon I can issue my own cheque to Mr Wilson, less the usual fees of course."
Barney soon made it clear to the solicitor that whatever went into his trust fund it would certainly not be that cheque. "Don't start worrying about your dough, and don't think you're going to get your claws on this cheque. Just hand it over to Mr Wilson; I'm buying the property off him, not you. You just send me a bill when this is all over, and don't make it too hot either."
Annoyed by his latest client the solicitor tried to explain why buying a property was different and more complicated than buying five hundred baths or a gross of jig-saw puzzles. It was in vain; all his life Barney had had the habit of going straight towards his objective regardless of obstacles, and the difficulties of the law were not for him. He lumped the law and the government together as devices for destroying initiative and progress. His suspicions and prejudices had been strong before he went into the public service to do his bit for the war-effort; when it was all over there was no shaking his belief that the country was in the hands of poltroons and idiots, abetted by the law and it's custodians.
Mr Wilkie sighed and tapped on the surface of his desk with his fingers. "What about insurance?" he said. "We will have to transfer Mr Wilson's insurance policy into your name as soon as possible. Otherwise there will be a nasty gap when you will have no cover whatever."
"It ain't insured," said the blacksmith helpfully. "Have you had a look at the joint lately. No insurance company'd touch it with a dung fork."
The solicitor took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He felt tired already, and it was still morning. He thought that he may as well ask the question. "I take it that your stock is fully insured, Mr O'Connell?"
"No, it's not!"
"I suppose that this is another of the things you don't believe in?"
."That's right, I won't have a bar of insurance: Bludgers! I'll carry it meself."
"Public risk policy?"
"It's an insurance cover you should have and you could be in a very nasty position if someone was to have an accident on the property? They would look to you for damages and if you have no public risk policy you are liable for the full amount. And without fire insurance, if the place was to catch fire, you could lose everything"
"They'll have to get it off me first; anyway, if anyone falls arse over turkey in my place and hurt themselves they deserve anything that happens to them."
''The law may have a different view.''
"I tell you, no insurance salesman sets foot on to my property. Anyway what's all this about? I didn't come here to talk insurance. All we want is a bit of paper to say that the property is mine and then we'll go."
''My duty as your advisor is to warn you that without insurance of any kind you are in a very dangerous situation.
"Well you've done it; now let's get on with the important part of the business!"
Barney listened impatiently to the explanation of why neither he nor the solicitor, nor anyone else could shorten the gestation period demanded by the law and the intricacies of the civil service before any transfer of land or property could take place.
Finally Mr Wilson, who had some influence over his friend, was able to persuade him that he could not complete the purchase of the the property that very day. All that he was going to get on the spot was a receipt signed by Mr Wilson when Barney insisted on handing him a cheque for the balance of the purchase price.
"I don't know anything about the law," the purchaser of the property stated, with a sort of perverse pride, "But I know about blacksmiths. He may be a silly old bugger but he's not going to take me down; I'd trust him with double the amount. He's like me, he's honest: that's been our trouble all our lives."
The subject of the money that had been found in the old duchess chest came up several times but with little success; Barney's reaction to this topic was discouraging. Finally the solicitor let the matter drop convinced that if the Sturgess estate was going to get any of the treasure trove it would have to take court action, and even so there would be easier projects than trying to prise money away from Barney O'Connell.
The solicitor turned to the blacksmith. "Now Mr Wilson you have the money, but before we can do anything else we're going to require the title deeds of the property. Can you go to your bank today and get them out of safe-keeping?"
"They're not at the bank. Last time I saw them they were stuck behind the clock on the mantelpiece. I'll have to ask me missus: she's a terror for chuckin' away old papers she reckons we don't need any more."
"You didn't put them in a safe place?"
"Well, behind the clock's a safe place, except when the missus decides to throw things out. She's been goin' a bit funny lately - she threw out some money once, never did get it back. You know what women are like when they're gettin' on a bit."
"You'll just have to find those papers!" said the solicitor shaking his head. "Otherwise there are going to be awful complications; please, Mr Wilson, do what you can. If we don't find the title deeds to the property it is going to be a long, complicated and expensive business."
"All he needs is an affidavit to say he lost the damn things," interposed Barney, showing an unexpected knowledge of legal terminology. "Everyone knows he owns the place, there's no argument about it."
"That's right," agreed Mr Wilson, "you ask anyone around here and they'll tell you I own the property. Barney'll swear to it in court. He pays me the rent every fortnight in advance. He wouldn't do that if I didn't own the place."
"It doesn't matter about common knowledge," retorted the solicitor, "the documents are all important - we must have them!"
"Alright," said Barney, "you had better have a good scratch around tonight to see if you can find them. And give your missus a few back-handers too, see if you can thump the truth out of her."
"Without advocating those extremes," said the solicitor, "I urge you to do what you can to find the deeds otherwise it is going to cost Mr O'Connell a great deal of money and time to replace them."
After making it quite clear to anyone within earshot that he had an unalterable distaste for handing over any more money than was absolutely necessary, Barney and Mr Wilson abruptly left the office. It was not Mr Wilson's idea; he was grasped by the upper arm and hurried down the stairs.
"You get stuck into it, Boy," admonished Barney over his shoulder to Wilkie as they paused at the office door. "It's about time somebody stirred up those loafers in the government. You go in and see the head sherang; hammer on the table and tell him you want some action. You'd better do it pretty damn quick or I'll go in with you and roar the tripes out of some of them in there."
The solicitor shuddered as they left the office; he resolved to fall over and break a leg rather than accompany his client to interview anyone in the Titles Office.
"Where are you going now?" asked the blacksmith when they were in Barney's car.
"Back to work, where else? I've been away from the place too long as it is, and if I'm not there things start to come unstuck. A man can't turn his back for five minutes in this racket without things going wrong some way or another."
"That's alright about you, Barney. Leave the place to Don for another quarter of an hour or so. I want you to take me up to the bank so I can get rid of this cheque. If I lose it, or it falls into the fire, or something, I'll have a hell of a job getting another one off you. Anyway, Don's alright in the auction room, he can manage on his own. You've got a real good bloke there, Barney, and you should treat him better than you do."
"What! you reckon Don's a good worker? That poon! he'd be alright with a battery under his saddle. Anyway, I'll make time to take you to your bank. Poor old bugger, you're getting a bit doddery now, and if I don't look after you you'll fall down in the street, or give the money to some kind of gentleman to hold for you, or even give it to your missus. We can't have that Hold tight old trapper, we're off."
Chapter – 12
"What's been happening while I've been away? Everything all right?" inquired Barney of Don. He saw Freddy carrying some chairs.
"What the hell's he doing here?"
"Helping," said Freddy promptly. "Tom and Chip didn't need me this morning, but they said I'd be right for the afternoon. So I thought I'd give Don a hand. Y'gotta give me a job, Barney. Don't be so bloody stubborn, Y'need me here."
"Yair, I need you as much as I need a dose of the clap.''
''Barney, stop being a bully, leave the boy alone.'' Maggie Spear called from the table where she worked. ''There are some letters here for you. And when am I going to get my office?''
''You'll get it when I give it to you.'' Barney forced his thumb under the flap of the first envelope and tore it open. It was a solicitor's letter. Barney read it and clicked his tongue in disgust. "What a dill," he muttered. "I told him not to waste his money on lawyers." He gave the letter to Don. It was from a legal firm in the city. They were acting on behalf of one Thomas Cave, who had been unlawfully deprived of a bag containing an unknown sum of money by one Barney O'Connell; and advising that the said Barney O'Connell had better hand over the bag and contents forthwith, together with two guineas legal costs, in order to avoid an action at law or possible criminal charges.
"That Tommy, he shouldn't be allowed out without a nurse! He'll get himself into real trouble one of these days if he goes fooling around with lawyers like this."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I know what I should do with it, only it might be a bit scratchy." He balled the letter up in his hand and threw it over his shoulder. The next letter was also from a solicitor; this time from Wilkie and Mather, inquiring in a more conciliatory tone about the money, but hinting, nevertheless that the heirs of Edward Sturgess were entitled to any treasure found in his furniture and that they intended to get it.
Barney treated the second letter the same as the first then gazed sternly at Don. "What's this about Freddy, what's he doing here?"
"Working!" retorted Don. "I took him on because I can't do it all on my own. Dan and Manny have got their stuff and gone and I couldn't have done it without Freddy to help me."
"Well, tell him to clear off. I'm here now."
"I'd better go too," said Don morosely. "This job's gunna kill me if I can't get any help. You're not here most of the time and I have to do it all on me own."
Barney would have continued the argument but was interrupted by the sight of Chip Dowd and Tom Neerim rolling up to the front of the auction room in the old Dodge car. Since acquiring possession, they had discovered that though decrepit the old vehicle was about equal to their tip truck, so they often used it. Sitting on the seat between them was a young woman in her early twenties. She got out with them, dusty and shaken.
Barney glared at the girl. "What are you doing here, Kathleen?" he demanded. "Haven't I told you to keep away from the business? This is no place for you."
"We saw her walking this way so, being gentlemen born, all we could do was offer her a lift."
"I came here because I wanted to; I can go anywhere I like and I don't have to ask your permission."
"You'll do what you're told and like it. If I say you're not to come here, you won't come here, and I won't argue, that's it."
''He's in bad mood today,'' cried Maggie Spear. ''The law's closing in on him. Go after him, Kath!''
''I was walking here from the railway station and the boys stopped and gave me a lift the rest of the way.''
''Well, they can just take you back again, you're not wanted here.''
"Turn it up, Barn., Kath's a big girl now, she should be able to go where she likes. It's a free country; why can't she come down here if she wants to?"
"You two keep out of this, it's a family matter and we can settle it between us without any help. She knows what it's all about, and if I've told her once I've told her a dozen times I don't want her hanging about down here."
"I'm going to work here, Mr Neerim, did Dad tell you? And the very first thing we're going to do is get some paint and tidy up this horrible front; and then we're going to have a spring-clean and clean the place out from top to bottom, aren't we, Dad?"
''First sensible thing that's been said here this morning,'' cried Maggie, don't give into him, Kath!'
Barney ignored her to shout at his daughter. "You'll touch nothing! This is a good business and I'm not going to have it mucked up because you don't know what you're doing. This place has kept you fed and clothed and the last thing it needs is a woman hanging around.''
''Yes it does! I'm going to be an asset to this business, just you wait and see.''
Forget it! Women are trouble and you're more trouble than most; so you can just clear off, go home and ask your mother for some work to do, women's work."
The two O'Connells faced one another determinedly, forgetful of the interest that the onlookers were showing in their argument. Even the blacksmith heard raised voices and joined them.
Kathleen O'Connell was twenty two and, to her father's chagrin, was still unmarried. She was far too argumentative, to find a husband easily. After working some years in an office as a typist, book-keeper she had grown tired of it and now, after giving up her job, had turned her attention to the auction room.
"You're going to give me a job and I'm going to be the first lady auctioneer in Victoria," she announced.
"That's the way to talk to the old bugger," said Freddy approvingly.
''Keep it up, love,'' cried Mrs Spear. ''Just wear him down. He'll have to show some common sense sometime.''
"By Hell, you're not!" was Barney's reaction. "You won't have anything to do with the auction because I won't give you any wages."
"We'll see what the union has to say about that. Now give up, Dad. This place will be very good if it's properly painted and sign-written, and you had better talk to Mr Wilson about having a concrete floor put down. This dirt floor we've got in here, it's prehistoric. Wouldn't you like to have a nice clean place to work in? Mum and I are ashamed if people ask us if we're anything to do with Barney's Auctions. It's so dirty and ugly people turn their noses up at it."
"Yair," said Freddy, "And tell him to give me a job too; between us we could make a go of this place. All it wants is a bit of proper management; I can see big possibilities here."
Barney was opening his mouth to shout a reply to these heresies when he was stopped by the telephone ringing. It was screwed to one of the timber uprights. Mrs Spear had to get up from her table and walk to the wall when the phone rang.
''It's for you,'' she said.
Without a word Barney went to answer the call; perhaps he was glad to escape an argument with one of the few people who refused to back down before him.
Kathleen smiled at the men. "He'll come round," she stated confidently. "It'll take a while, but he'll get used to the idea sooner or later."
"Beauty!" cried Freddy enthusiastically. "Do you want to get married? I reckon I'd marry you if that's how you get a job round here."
"You'll get a clip over the earhole if you're not careful," announced Don. "If you want a job here get on with it. We'll talk to Barney about you later. Start straightening up the stock where I told you or I'm gunna change me mind."
"Too late, am I, Don? Got your eye on her yourself, have you, Don? Alright, mate, I won't cut you out this time, but just watch it, and treat her right, otherwise I'll want to know the reason why."
"Don dug his elbow forcibly into Freddy's ribs and that forward young man disappeared into the auction room. Don followed to make sure he was working properly.
"I liked the way you handled Barney," said Tom Neerim. "Anyone that can talk like that won't go too bad as an auctioneer. What do you think, Chip?" Chip nodded and winked to show that he was in full agreement with his friend. "Chip and me may not be around to see you when you get your license, but we reckon you'll be a real hum-dinger. You stick at it and make him clean the place up a bit; anything like that round here would be an improvement.
George Wilson had been listening and now came to speak with Kathleen. ''What's wrong with Barney? He's as mad as a pork chop. He needs you and Don in this business, but instead he's trying to drive you away.''
"It's not that so much," explained Kathleen, "Partly it's because he's jealous of anyone interfering in his business, but the real reason he doesn't want me around here is Don. We're Micks and he's not.''
''Catholics! The O'Connells are Catholics, as you might have noticed. Grandpa O'Connell came from Ireland, and Dad keeps telling me that we're Romans and Don's not, he's nothing."
Tom walked past carrying some chairs. He put them down and snapped his fingers. "So that's what he's going on about. Freddy was quicker at picking the odds than we were. Gawd, I wouldn't wake up if a dunny fell on me. Good on you, Kath, I think Don must be the same religion as Chip and me, and you couldn't get better blokes than us. Don's a beauty. You snap him up, and good luck to both of you, I say."
Mr Wilson was puzzled. ''You and Don are keen on each other, and Barney doesn't like his religion, I didn't think it mattered anymore.''
''It does to Dad.''
''I'll have a chat with him,'' said Tom.
''Don't you dare, unless you want to make things worse than they are.''
''Alright luv. We won't say anything''
''Good! The less said the better. Don and I suit one another, and Dad can carry on as much as he likes it's not going to make any difference. Besides, he needs someone round here to keep an eye on him; he's getting more rude to the customers every day."
"Well, you go and talk to Don. We want to nobble Barney and ask him about the money Don found; we reckon if the money was in our chest it belongs to us."
Kathleen was doubtful of this proposal; she knew from long experience the difficulty of parting her father from any cash. He was always punctilious about paying debts, but equally determined to hang on to that which he considered his.
The two men had told her of their plan to go to Queensland and settle on a pineapple farm. All that was needed was a favourable reply from their friend before making the final decision. The profit they would pick up from the demolition of the house and a few pounds from Barney, for the sale of the Sturgess furniture should get them through to their new home but the budget would be very tight. If they could prise the bag of money from Barney's grasp, they would be that much more secure and would perhaps arrive with some cash in hand.
They found Barney with little difficulty in the retail section, because of the noise he was making. Don and Freddy were busy next door stacking furniture and goods ready for auction and putting everything that had been sold, but not yet collected, conveniently to one side. They were used to the man shouting and hectoring the customers; it was best not to get mixed up in Barney's arguments. They chatted to Kathleen while the row next door sorted itself out.
Barney was having a spirited quarrel with a New Australian woman who had brought her family into his premises while looking round at the goods for sale. He was accusing her of damaging the stock with a large wicker pram. It was a big pram and the place was so cluttered the only way to get it through was by brute force and persistence. She was using it like an ice-breaker pushing through pack ice. The baby in the pram, apparently used to such treatment, slept on peacefully in spite of the noise and its rough passage.
Barney sternly pointed out a fresh scratch mark low down across the front of a walnut veneer wardrobe. It was obviously made by the axle of the pram for a chrome hub-protector had fallen off leaving the square end of the axle exposed. She refused to see any scratches and denied responsibility; she said the furniture was scratched before she had appeared on his premises and argued vehemently in defence of several children, apparently hers, whom he accused of swarming over his stock and doing untold damage.
Neerim and Dowd arrived at a critical moment for Barney because the woman, instead of retreating from the argument, as did most of his meeker opponents, was stoutly defying him while ploughing on towards her objective. This was a large cedar chest visible at the back of the room.
"What's going on here?" asked Tom Neerim jovially, "Who are you grizzling at now?"
"Oh, its you," grunted Barney. "It's enough to turn a man up. Look at what she's doing to my stuff with that bloody great pram of hers. I suppose her old man was driving Panzer tanks during the war; he must've given her special training before she came here. Look Missus, can't you tell those kids of yours to keep their fingers to themselves? I suppose you'd think I was a hard man if I came up to your place and started to kick the furniture around."
"I don't reckon it'd worry her much," said Tom Neerim softly. "With a mob of kids like she's got it probably wouldn't make much difference what you did to the joint. Anyway you can't spend the day talking to your fancy women, we came up to see you about that money."
The New Australian woman was now opening the drawers of the chest and slamming them again. She shook it vigorously and tried to twist it to see if the joints were loose. A roll of lino leaning against the chest slid and then fell over dislodging one or two smaller articles but she ignored the chain reaction of crashes in her concentration on the chest.
In those days even Barney did not swear in a woman's presence, nor could he haul her out of the place bodily. He had a rich flow of language but it was not enough to budge the woman from her purpose. At length he subsided. "It's enough to make a man give up hope!" he grumbled. "I work my insides out to make a go of this place and I'm the only one that does anything around here. I can't leave because something comes unstuck if I do. Yet even when I‘m here you get silly old sheilas like this paddling round the joint knocking quids and quids off the value of everything. Look at the scratches on this stuff." He rubbed the damaged surface with his leather apron.
"I have to sell all this. Why the hell does she keep coming back here? I wouldn't let her have anything if there was only one quid left in the world and she had it. She knows that as well as I do, but she keeps hauling that dirty big pram into the place."
The woman had now decided that the chest was what she wanted and started to leave. She found the pram even harder to push out than it was to get it in.
''Give her a lift, Barney," advised Tom. "Help her over the stock. If you're worried about damage you should help her out."
"I'll give her a lift under the bloody ear. That's how I'll help her out. Look at that!"
The woman was using both hands and all her weight to push the pram through the conglomeration of articles that jammed up any free movement in the retail section. Seeing that Barney was not going to help, Tom and Chip gallantly lifted the whole outfit over the top of the scattered stock and set it down, with the baby still sleeping, in a cleared place just outside the door.
"That's it," said Barney, "Goodbye, and if I don't see you again, it'll be too soon."
"If you kept your business properly instead of having it so untidy people could come in and walk round and buy things," the woman retorted.
"Yair, that's right, Barney. Why don't you get stuck into it and do a bit of work now and again? You don't want to make Don and Freddy do everything."
"Those loafers! They wouldn't know what day it is. If I was thirty years younger I'd run the whole show on me own. As it is I'm doing the work and carrying them both on me back."
''I go find someone better than you,'' said the woman. You very rude man. I tell my friends to stay away from here."
"If they're anything like you I hope they do. The last thing I want is a flock of old tarts round here ruining me business. And count those kids before you go!" he roared as a parting shot as the woman went out through the door. "I don't want any left behind."
She shook the pram at him and pulled a face.
"There's no doubt about it, Barney," said Tom Neerim as the woman gathered up her family and went next door, "You've got a way with women; just keep the flattery coming and you can do anything with them. I know it's not your looks; it must be your personality that gets them in."
"Yair, I'm lucky aren't I? I get all the best customers, and I got clowns working for me too, very funny! Anyway I can't spend all day standing round listening to you dribbling on. What do you want?"
"It's about the money you found in that old chest of ours. Chip and me've been thinking it over and we reckon if it was in our chest it must be our money. That's fair, isn't it?"
"Go and see your solicitor," advised Barney, "Everyone else has."
"We haven't got any money to pay solicitors, and we wouldn't go near them anyway. It's nothing to do with the law, it's between us three."
"In all the years I've known you that's the first sensible thing I've ever heard you say," commented Barney generously. "I had to go and see one myself this morning, and that was only because I couldn't do it any other way. Even then he wanted to give me the run around. The best thing you can do with lawyers is stay away from them."
"Yair, that's alright, but what about the money? Don't you reckon if it was in our chest then it should be ours?"
"If you look at it one way that's O.K. but I've got other people around and they're looking at it a bit differently to you." He handed over the two letters he had received in the morning's post. Don had smoothed them out and returned them to him. The two men read the letters and gave them back.
"That puts the kybosh on us, doesn't it? Two solicitor's letters in one day, that must be a record even for you, Barney. We've never had any, but then we don't get into as many fights as you do. I don't know what the law is when you find a bag of money like this but we're the only ones that can't afford to pay anything to get it."
"I don't know," said Barney. "I have to nut the whole thing out myself. All I'm sure of right now is that little prawn Cave isn't going to get the dough even if I have to burn it. He kept raving on about a cow and its unborn calf. The way he went on anyone would think the old chest had a bun in the oven. To tell you the truth I don't know what I'm going to do with the money. I might just get sick of the whole thing and throw it off the end of the pier, then you can all go and fish for it.''
''Do you know what was in that bag? A hundred and sixty quid all in £20 notes; I counted it up last night. All brand new, and look as though they've never been spent. Anyway if those silly drongos take me to court the lawyers'll get the lot and we'll wind up with sweet Fanny Adams."
They moodily contemplated for a moment or two the complications wrought in simple lives by a sudden access of wealth, or loss of it.
Barney said, "Are you blokes free to work here for a while. I have to shift the lino and fix up the wall. If you could spare me a few hours it would be a great help."
"How much?" asked Tom. They often worked for Barney, but the rate of pay was always open to negotiation.
"Five bob an hour."
"A dollar an hour! You minjy old cow! Chip and me wouldn't soil our hands in this dump under ten bob, that's a quid an hour between us, and five bob for Freddy."
Barney was so demoralised by his recent experiences that he forgot to argue and beat them down to seven and sixpence as they both expected; he even missed the reference to Freddy and his five shillings. They could afford to work for Barney for the rest of the day, he always paid cash, and the demolition of the old house was going well.
A little cast down at the thought of missing out on the money from the chest the two men, under Barney's direction, began to tidy up and make a place for the lino then hauled it painfully, roll by roll into its new position. While they worked they told him of their latest plan to emigrate to Queensland and grow pineapples.
"Well, its no use trying to tell you jokers anything because you can't learn. I thought for a minute there you were getting some sense; but I see I was wrong. You get into this pineapple racket and you'll be back in Vic. inside six months with the arse out of your pants looking for a job. You two have got strong backs and weak heads, and well, I admit that's a great start for anyone that's going on the land, but strewth, its only someone who was born a cocky that can make a go of being a cocky. Even if you know the game backwards and you've got enough capital there are still millions of things that can go wrong. You can sit up all night nursing your pineapples and they'll end up getting curly leaf or something or other. If you go on the land it'll be the worst day's work you ever did! Anyway even if you did fluke a profit the tax man would grab it off you. That's like me, I'm working myself into the ground to support that rotten mob of wasters we've got up in Canberra. No, with the set up we've got in this country you just can't win."
Kathleen now bustled into the retail department with the New Australian woman. She had persuaded her to leave the pram and her family outside on the footpath. There was no immediate explosion and Barney contented himself for the time being by glaring.
The two women picked their way through the clutter and Kathleen began extolling the good points of the chest of drawers. The cedar panels were not cracked and it had been kept in a state of high polish. The only flaw was a scratch across the front, which the customer pointed out.
The chest was decorated on either side with two turned shafts that were described as Barley Sugar Twist', and a central, top drawer was decorated in relief with carved leaves. Don had bought it at an auction sale for six pounds ten-shillings.
Kathleen asked her father the price of the chest but got only a surly response and the information that there were men at work in the shed and the sooner she got out of the way and went home the better.
"He said it's worth £5," said Kathleen at random to her customer, who folded her arms and glared back at Barney.
"Bloody Hell!" shouted Barney. "Five quid! Are you trying to break me? That thing's worth fifteen quid if it's worth anything; it would be cheap at fifteen! Now clear off, go on, go home before you do any more damage."
"Don't pay any attention," Kathleen confided to her customer. "We just keep him here to bark at people. This will be a lesson to you, Dad. In future you put the prices on things so we will both know. Five pounds is right," she said to the triumphant woman. "You will have to pay for delivery of course; we couldn't deliver it for that price."
"We can't even live at that price. She's cost me money ever since she first dragged her pram into the joint and now you're starting."
"Well, you've had a cheap lesson; from now on mark everything in the place so we both know. Another thing, as soon as you get the floors fixed up, we will have to think about getting proper price tickets."
"Yair, we can do all that when I go broke! How the hell can we sell goods at a loss and buy price tickets to do it? That's a fancy way of running the business into the ground!"
Kathleen answered him pertly and the two women looked triumphantly at the common enemy who glowered back at them.
"Alright," he said giving in suddenly, "You can sell it, give it away, do anything you like with it. What do I care what happens to the business? Just because I walked into these crummy old sheds and built it up from nothing, and worked like hell to do it, doesn't mean anything, I suppose. Go on! Throw me money away; between you and the tax man what hope have I got?" He had received a tax demand some days ago and had not yet recovered.
"You sell, I pay for delivery now," said the woman, who knew about the price of cedar chests and was anxious to clinch the deal. "I live five hundred yards away, no more; how much will cost the delivery?"
Don, who had heard the last sentence, but none of the preceding dispute now poked his head round the door and said, "We're running a special today, love; we'll do it for a pound a yard." He winked at Kathleen. '' 'ow are yer, Fat! Can I see you in a minute, next door?"
He withdrew after making these remarks, leaving Kathleen to soothe her customer who did not yet understand the humour of her new countrymen. Eventually she extracted £5 for the chest and ten shillings for delivery. Chip and Tom were pleased to deliver it for this price after work.
"I'm in the wrong game," grunted Barney, "I wish I'd made ten bob on the deal."
"Ah, you'll be alright, Barn," they said. "Business is bound to look up soon."
"It's looking up alright; there's no other place it can look; it's on the flat of its bloody back."
A livid silence descended on Barney after this remark and Kathleen had gone next door to talk to Don. The three men laboured in silence, lifting the lino, carrying and stacking.
"Don't hang around here!" Barney shouted suddenly to the wall. "Don't think I'm going to pay you a cracker because I'm not. You go home and help your mother she needs you - I don't."
"You need me, even though you won't admit it!" answered the wall; "and I can get my own wages. I know where the money's kept, and I'll pay Freddy too. Why don't you give up and put us on the pay-roll!"
"Don't you touch the takings! I won't have it!"
"Yes I will! I'll take fair wages every week until you're ready to give in, then we'll talk."
There was a silence after this unsatisfactory exchange.
"Troubles, Barn?" said Tom Neerim, "can I lend you a hanky?"