Susan Johnson

Dave and the Blow In (a true story)

(Photo: Not actually Dave – all pictures sourced from stock photos)

People joke about how you need to be in a country town for 30 years to be accepted, but I assumed that things would be different for me.

“If you phone this number at 8.30am you should catch Dave”, said the local estate agent when I told him I needed assistance with restoring a substantial house I had just bought. He added, “I probably should warn you that some people find him a bit strange”. I quite like quirky people so was happy to try.

Dave, the odd jobs man, turned the time I spent in a beautiful country town in the western district of Victoria into an adventure.

No doubt intrigued to know more about the stranger from the city who phoned him out of the blue, Dave arrived to begin work on my first day in town. In turn, I was curious to put a face to the voice at the end of the phone. He was about 45, deeply tanned, with longish curly unkempt hair, fit looking, and wearing (only?) a dirty blue boiler suit. His eyes had a strange distant stare that suggested he had once used hard drugs.

Being an old hand at renovating city houses, I was wise to potential trades’ traps. So, watching the clock, I became tense as Dave talked and talked and talked as he fitted fly wire in the back door that he insisted on rebuilding. He talked about various townsfolk and the jobs he’d done, mostly for people who could not afford to pay much. His stories made him sound kind and I should have felt ashamed at thinking he was a con man. His first bill was modest, not the exorbitant bill I had feared.

Once I realised Dave was not going to fleece me, I relaxed and called him whenever I was in town and needed a small job done. He was originally a boilermaker and his workmanship was superb. He could fix split doors, mend broken locks, and rebuild chimneys. No job was too big or small. I grew to love hearing about the locals and the town’s history and could easily encourage him to chat by asking, “What’s new?” He, in turn, was keen to hear about my city life, a life that probably sounded both exotic and chaotic. Remarkably, he had never been to the city. His orbit was 60 kilometres around the town.

Dave was amazed by the amount of time I spent reading and working at my computer on drafts of articles and chapters. He called me ‘the writer’ and, becoming tuned into my interests, would bring around cuttings from the daily national newspaper about issues in the visual arts he believed would be of interest to me. He was always spot-on.

I learned in this tiny town that many of the people had the time to talk, but the accuracy of a story was not of paramount concern. If they didn’t know what is really going on, they merely surmised, perhaps from observation. Dave revealed one day that some locals had told him that a senior politician, whose family property was about 50 kilometres away, had set me up in the old mansion as his mistress. I found that suggestion flattering, being semi-retired and pushing 60. I did not want to ruin a good story by denying it.

“Hey, you’ve got the same smelly as me” Dave said one day. As I wondered whether I should be offended, he shocked me with the news that at Christmas time the local teachers often tossed out perfumes, talcs and other gifts the children had given them.  Being in charge of the school bins he saw what was thrown out, scooped it up, and gave retrieved items as gifts to his friends. He did not know or care that the YSL perfume he used as an air freshener for his truck and sprayed on his overalls when they were a bit “on the nose” was expensive.

Suspicious of his intentions in the early days of our friendship, I was nervous about going anywhere with Dave. He wanted to take me to a good fishing spot on a friends’ land, to a plantation behind town to see an eagles‘ nest, to a track where there was excellent firewood, or to a house where there was a nice old table on a veranda that I could get for a bargain price. I always found an excuse for not going. One day he suggested I should see some work he had done at a mate’s old shed. I had run out of reasons for saying no and so I said I would go, but insisted on taking my car. His battered old truck had to be parked facing downhill to ensure that it would start, so getting anywhere and returning without a mishap was a risky proposition. He suggested we take the short cut along a rough gravel road – the one with a very steep hill – to test my 4WD. I thought to myself, “You idiot, he just wants to get you somewhere secluded”, so I said I wasn’t a confident driver and would prefer to stick to the bitumen road. Without incident, we inspected the repairs to his friend’s ancient shed. Talk about having tickets on myself! As if …

A re-cycler extraordinaire, Dave used bits and pieces he had picked up at the local tip or saved from his past jobs whenever possible. Each time we went to the tip to drop off building junk he would pick up handy bits and pieces. It was fun. You can’t explore tips in the city any more. I watched him put the ‘new’ junk into his back yard, already full of bits and pieces that would come in handy one day and enough firewood to last a lifetime. Dave’s back yard junk pile was on a small scale compared with other blocks on the outskirts of the town. Nothing seemed to be thrown out (for long) in the country.

We travelled to other nearby towns and tips looking for doors, flooring and windows for my house. I loved passing the crops on the beautiful rolling hills we passed through as they changed colour with the seasons. Once, as we threw things off the trailer at a small tip, people emerged from the bush and swooped on them. Some tried to sell us junk they had rescued from the tip. Seeing poverty so close at hand was a sobering experience for me.

When I was making lunch one day Dave asked if I could spare some breadcrumbs for some mousetraps he had bought. “Mouse plague?” I inquired. “Nope” he said, “there is a bush right outside my bedroom window that the sparrows call home. They wake me up at dawn every morning. I want to catch them so I can sleep in.” By now, nothing Dave said surprised me. I uessed he was serious. Next time I saw him I asked whether he had caught any sparrows in the mousetraps. “Nah, but I got a blackbird. It flew off before I could get its beak out.” He tried to tell me more about the gruesome fate of the bird, but I quickly changed the subject.

Although quite short, Dave was as strong as an ox and would use his skills and guile to get anything done. He usually worked alone and courting danger seemed to be an incentive. One day when no-one was around he climbed into an empty well beneath my house – no doubt checking for old treasures. On hearing about this later, I thought about a possible drowning or snakebite and shuddered to think of what could have happened if the ladder had broken or the lid slammed shut. He didn’t have a mobile phone to use to call for help.

I arrived from the city one winter’s day to find him on the roof. He had replaced the wood heater with a ‘new’ recycled version. He had inserted the heater and erected the flue on his own because his mate hadn’t turned up to help. He knew I would need a fire as the inland nights were bitterly cold, so he had done it alone rather than let me down. Health and safety precautions were not on his radar.

Muriel was one of the people he helped out for next-to-nothing. She owned some beautiful gates from a demolished church. Dave thought they would be perfect for my place and talked her into selling them to me. She lived in a wreck of a house behind a heritage-listed shop-front. She spent a lot of time sitting outside the house trying to keep cool during summer’s scorchers. A transvestite, she did not keep a low profile. In heels, Muriel was nearly two metres’ tall and wore a fur coat almost all year round. Dave told me that she once asked him if he could push a caravan in through the back wall of her place because it would be cheaper and easier than building a kitchen. He had measured the caravan but it wouldn’t fit. The towns’ powerbrokers used the derelict state of the house as a way of getting rid of Muriel. The house was condemned and quickly bulldozed. The main street now looks like it has a missing tooth – so much for the heritage listing! Dave thought the treatment of Muriel was dreadful. She moved to the caravan park.

We found that some bees had built a hive in a wall of my outside dunny. Dave offered to get rid of them, insisting on doing it because he wanted the honey. He bashed a small hole in the wall near the hive and sprayed insect repellent through it each time he visited the house. When I went to inspect, a pile of empty cans of fly spray told a tale. Although Dave believed the fly spray would have a cumulative effect, the bees did not vacate the hive. He decided to hasten their exit by pulling off a sheet of fibro. His protection against stings was shade cloth draped over his head. He did not realise that I was in the garden just around the corner. The agitated bees headed straight for my head and several stung me. I screamed “Daaaave!” as other bees were becoming caught in my hair. I was terrified. When he appeared around the corner of the house I called him everything under the sun. He assured me they would calm down if I did, and suggested I stay away from the dunny for a while. Next time I saw Dave one side of his face was swollen and purple, particularly around the eye. I didn’t need to ask what had happened. He told me he managed to get some honey but that the bees were still around. A pest controller was called.

While I was renovating the house I would fall into bed exhausted at night not caring that there was no entertainment or anyone to talk to unless I phoned home. There was nothing to do in the town if you didn’t drink at the pub. I found the absolute quiet of the main street at night eerie, and it seemed to emphasise my loneliness. One night as I walked the dog around the silent town I asked myself “What on earth am I doing here?”

As much fun as this journey was for me, the 4-hour journey from Melbourne proved to be too far for my city friends to come to visit me. They didn’t notice the beautiful countryside they passed through to get there. “What mountains?” asked my sister when I commented that the spectacular range of mountains near the highway never looked the same twice. I was incredulous that she had not seen them. My partner, ‘highly suspicious of this Dave’ visited and played on the nearby golf course a couple of times, but showed no enthusiasm.

In three years no-one knocked on my door (although the house was in the main street) to say hello or invite me over. My only human contact was with the shopkeepers and tradespeople and then only as their customer. Where is the country hospitality they talk about? I decided it was a myth and that the city was a much friendlier place. Perhaps the 20 year rule for acceptance is true – 3 years was not nearly enough for me to be accepted.

Dave had been there to entertain me and keep me company while there was work to do. But when the job was finished, when I had changed a neglected partial wreck of a house into a loved and repaired home for posterity, we realised that my time there was over.

So, no doubt as many locals’ predicted, the ‘mistress’ left town. However, I have my photos to remind me of the fun and beauty.

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