The man who stole my heart
I’ve met, loved and lost some incredibly beautiful people in my life; something that goes with the territory of having a terminal illness. But that’s the map of life. You love and you lose. You fall down and you get up again.
Not long ago, I met a friend’s father who at nearly 87, still lives in his family home on a property in Northern New South Wales. Gordon Greber is a grand and proud man, both in grace and stature. A man who knows the land like the back of his giant hands, mapped with impenetrable skin stained from his days and years of unforgiving – and often thankless – work.
They don’t build men like this anymore. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. Gordon didn’t have the luxury of tractors or motorbikes to get his work done. In fact, he’s spent his life eschewing any luxuries at all. He is a grand man who welcomes the simple things, like a good brew of tea. Everything - everything - was done by hand when he was a boy and a young man. Cutting timber (one of his giant saws hangs above the entrance of his kitchen), slashing cane and using his shoulders to carry it to where it needed to be, and other back breaking work is merely a sliver of Gordon’s story. More can be found in the link at the very top of this post at my dear friend Nicole Cody’s blog. It describes a little of Gordon’s life, as well as the day we met where we had a near two hour chat – a day where a grand man stole my heart.
As soon as Nic and I returned to her place, I sat down, opened up my novel which is set in outback Queensland in 1973, and created a character called Gordon Greber – a Herculean man who builds a friendship with my main protagonist, Garnett Roy. This means Gordon’s stories are going to live on, as they should. Here’s a little snippet. Just keep in mind its a first draft. Please be nice …
Garnett pulled his bowie knife out of his pocket.
‘How about it?’
‘Nice toothpick,’ said Gordon.
Garnett put the knife back in his pocket.
‘Well, what we need here are two men and one bloody big saw.’
The breeze turned and Garnett’s nose went up into the air.
‘You smell that?’
Gordon walked over from his truck, ‘Yeah – that’s no good.’
‘Something’s dead. Fuckin’ stinks. I’ll go and check it out,’ and without prompting, Gordon – a hulking lump of a man with hands as big as dinner plates – followed.
The air that ferried the stench up into Garnett and Gordon’s heads was foul. Their nostrils flared like angry horses.
‘I gotta find what that is. Can’t have you working in this shit.’
‘It ain’t shit, sure as shit. Something’s dead.’
Loretta came running out onto the back verandah with Tibby, who had a peg on her nose.
‘What is that?’ her hand covering her nose.
‘Yeah, yeah – we know. I’m gonna find what the hell it is. Something’s dead.’
‘Yuck!’ shouted Tibby.
‘Don’t you worry, girlie – we’ll find it and bury it and your nose’ll be as good as new.’
‘Tanks Gordon,’ said Tibby. ‘I reckon Dad could smell it in heaven, Mum.’
‘You don’t get stuff like this in heaven, love,’ said Gordon.
‘Then why do people say it ‘stinks to high heaven’’?
‘Because if heaven got it, then it must be real bad.’
‘This peg’s making my nose sore,’ said Tibby, sounding like she was talking underwater.
‘Go and rub some lavender oil under your schnoz. That’ll make it better,’ said Gordon.
‘Let us know what it is!’ shouted Tibby to the men who were on their way down to the dam.
‘We’re on it, girlie!’ yelled back Gordon.
The two men made their way down the hill, dry earth crunching under their boots, the stench growing ever fouler. When they reached the dam, before Garnett could even see it, Gordon said, ‘well it’s nothin’ but a waterlogged pig.’
‘I can see the maggots moving from here,’ said Garnett, taking his hat off. ‘Shit.’
‘I gotta get that outta there. Sure as shit can’t sink it.’
‘Nah – it’d poison the water. I’ll give you a hand.’
‘Beauty. I’ll load up the truck with ropes. If you can reverse down, I’ll wade out to get it.
‘You lucky bugger,’ said Gordon and they both walked back up the hill.
Tibby was still out on the verandah with a peg on her nose.
She looked to Garnett and asked, ‘What is it?’
‘Dead pig – been there for a couple of days. We’re gonna get rid of it.’
‘Can I watch? Please?’
‘Only if your Mum’s ok with it. S’pretty foul, matey.’
‘I wanna see it.’
‘Want to see what? said Loretta, walking down the stairs.
‘The dead pig!’
‘You really want to see that?’
Tibby nodded and the peg fell off her nose. She drew in a big breath with her mouth, picked the peg up and stuck it back on her face.
‘As long as I have this, she said, pointing to her nose, ‘I’ll be fine. I just wanna see it.’
‘Well, it’s your lucky day – off you go,’ said Loretta. ‘Just don’t get in the way, ok?’
Tibby ran down the stairs and sidled up next to Garnett. ‘Whaddya do with it?’
‘Go in and get it.’
‘Oh, gross! I’m gonna get the polaroid – don’t start without me.’
‘Young minds,’ said Gordon.
‘Still with a bloody peg on her nose. Dunno how she’s gonna take photos, but I’m sure she’ll work it out. Smart kid, you know.’
‘I knew Jack, so yeah, I know.’
With that, Garnett swallowed hard.
‘I’ll head up to the shed and get the ropes and a tarp. Won’t be long.’
‘Mate … ’
Gordon stood there abrading his crumpled brow with his . Garnett jumped in the truck and threw his hat on the passenger seat. He knew Gordon didn’t mean anything untoward. You can’t fight or shake hands with a dead man.
Garnett drove back to the house, changed into some old waders he’d found in the shed that went up to his armpits and called out to Tibby and Gordon who were already looking at her photos.
‘Right – I think I’ve got everything I need. Let make quick work of this, ok?’
Tibby squealed with excitement, ‘I can’t believe you’re actually going in there, Garnett!’
‘Oh, believe it,’ he said under his breath. ‘’Ay Gordon, I’ll back it down, mate.’
‘Ok. Nice waders, chief …’
‘That’s not even funny. I’m gonna be needing a drink after this.’
‘And a damn good soak,’ said Loretta.
‘As long as you’re not feeding me pig tonight, I’m a happy man.’
Loretta raised an eyebrow and said, ‘Who said I was cooking you dinner?’
‘Oh, come on – d’you think I’ll be in any fit state after half a bottle of rum?’
‘Go for your life,’ she said and walked back inside.
‘Have that rum nice and cold, Rets. This is gonna be thirsty work!’ shouted Gordon, winking at Tibby.
‘And stinky,’ said Tibby.
‘If I knew any better, you’d think that I was the bloody help!’ said Loretta from the verandah.
‘I’d love a cuppa, Rets,’ said Gordon, laughing.
‘Ok, let’s get this show on the road’, said Garnett.
Garnett got into the truck, the waders now up to his chin. He put the truck in reverse and moved backward down the hard slope. Gordon was behind the him, guiding the truck in, whistling when the tyres had reached just short of the edge of the water. He got out of the cabin and said to Gordon, ‘she’s all yours.’ Gordon tied the ropes to the trucks tow ball so he could haul the pig out of the water when Garnett was done.
Tibby sat on a rock with her camera perched awkwardly on her legs, up to her face.
Garnett stepped in and dumped the ropes and tarp on top of the water. Walking into the water, he floated the tarp and the ropes next to him.
‘Smile!’ shouted Tibby, so Garnett gave a little wave. He could hear the sound of the camera processing the picture. ‘This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,’ she said to herself.
Garnett was knee deep, then it stayed just under his neck. The water wasn’t as deep as he thought it would be. He grabbed the floating tarp, wrapped the ropes around his neck, thought that was a bad idea and put them back onto the surface of the water. The stench was indescribable.
‘How’re you going out there?’ yelled Gordon, but all Garnett could do was give a thumbs up or he was going to be swimming in his own vomit. Lucky he hadn’t eaten, he secreted to himself. This was disgusting, even for him. Worse than the time he shat himself when he was screwing some girl back in Ilfracombe. He’d seen and done some messed up things, but this was almost too much. But more luck – the pig was hoisted high enough in the water so Garnett could get the tarp underneath the carcass then throw the ropes over it and drag it to the edge of the dam. There would’ve been thousands maggots swarming over and under the skin of the pig, as if it had a life of its own; as though it was still breathing.
He pulled the tarp under the bloated carcass, made sure there was going to be enough room to travel up and over the hill and to somewhere far enough away. He tethered the ropes to the ends of the tarp, then up and over this foul thing that was before him. He got in front of it to make sure the ropes didn’t lift and he saw that the pressure squeezed out thousands more maggots. ‘Better him than me,’ he said to himself. He turned to Gordon and shouted’, Ok! Slow, slow, slow.’
As Gordon revved the engine of the truck and got it moving at a snails pace, the tarp dragged through the water and parts of the pig fell away. ‘Glad I wasn’t fuckin’ behind it,’ Garnett said to himself.
When it got to shore, Garnett was breathing into his armpit; wildly exhaling as though to rid himself of some demon. He hopped up into the tray and shouted, ‘keep goin’, keep goin’ – go east. East!’
‘I’ll know it when I see it.’
‘How are you even alive after that?’ laughed Gordon.
‘I think I’m dyin’ right now. Jeezus!’ Garnett vomited all over the carcass as Gordon drove on. It felt good. It was like shedding another skin. Garnett could see where he wanted to go after a few minutes, and he knocked on the glass separating him and Gordon.
‘See that little hill just over the way – it’s a bull ant’s nest. That’s where we’re dumping this bastard of a thing.’
Gordon got the pig as close to the nest as possible. After flicking off the ignition, he could hear the ants fosssicking in the dirt. It was like a low rattle in the earth.
‘Ya gonna get bitten.’
‘I know that,’ said Gordon. ‘You think I’m green?’
‘Not for a moment, mate. Let’s get this over and done with.’
‘Just kiddin’ with ya. Ok, here we go.’
There seemed to be an understanding between the two men. No words were spoken – they just did what they had to do.
‘This tarp can go to god,’ thought Garnett. Neither of them made an attempt to salvage it after they’d rolled the pig onto the ants nest. It was full of holes after slugging the pig from dam to out east. Both men got bit, but neither of them felt it because the stench had punched their senses.
‘You ever done this before?’ asked Gordon.
‘Only with smaller things … dogs, foxes.’
‘Then watch this and marvel, my friend …’
Within seconds, ants had covered the pig and were feasting on the flesh and the maggots. The pig started moving and the two men backed away.
‘You won’t see anything like that again. This’d be the second time I’ve ever seen this happen in all my years, and I’ve been around for a while, young cobber.’
The sight of the ants moving under and around the pigs skin was like a silent play. Just inside of ten minutes, the pigs snout was gone, and ants with swollen bellies moved off so their hungry friends could feast.
‘You seen enough?’ asked Gordon.
‘For today. I’ve smelt enough for the rest of my life.’
‘Let’s get you back and cleaned up.’
Garnett climbed back into the tray, undid the ropes and Gordon took off, laughing as he knocked it into second gear.
So that’s it. Gordon Greber and Garnett Roy – mates for life whose stories will always endure. I’m looking forward to seeing Gordon in the next couple of weeks when I head back down to Northern NSW. Time for hugs, stories, paint stripping brews of tea and scones. It’s the simple things that bond us.