…and This Was The Bridge That Dad Built by Gwyneth Jones
My father built a bridge. At least that’s what he told us. Mum didn’t believe him. She reckoned he couldn’t build a chook-house, let alone a bridge. But my sister and I believed him and never tired of listening to the tale of when Dad built the bridge. Mind you, he would have to be well-lubricated with the amber liquid before he would tell the story.
It happ ened way back in 1928 when the King Country was still a hostile and untamed territory. Dad would begin the story with a lengthy explanation about how he won the tender from Waitomo County to build a bridge out on the Waitiwhenua Road. He had been paid £314 pounds for the job, he said. Then he would pause and his eyes would glaze over as he remembered. He would take up the story again at Zadey’s General Store where he said he had paid only eleven shillings for 25lb of butter; 18/6d for 70lbs of sugar and 3lbs of galvanized nails had been just one shilling.
“Yer wouldn’t get prices like that tiday,” he would emphasize. He had also bought a shovel handle, a slasher, a nest of billies and some 3-in-One oil. Egg powder, Worcester sauce and six tins of evaporated milk. But the biggest bargain that day had to have been the half sack of hops for only 1/3d, for no self-respecting bridge builder would have ventured out into the wilds of the King Country without hops to make the necessary home-brew. Dad, and the gang of men he had hired, loaded these purchases onto his old truck and they set out for Waitiwhenua Road.
Once the background for the bridge story had been established our big old-fashioned kitchen would be silent, except for the crackle of flames from the firebox of the Orion coal range, as Dad took time out to remember. Then after contemplating for a while he would tell us that the bill from Zadey’s Store had come to nine pounds seven shillings and tuppence. Mum would glare at him over the sock she was darning and tell him not to talk such a load of rot. By then Dad would be far too entranced in his memories for her insults to wound him in any way. The story would be resumed at the part I liked best.
“Me ‘n the jokers,” Dad would say, “lived in the old county huts while we built the bridge and they were bloody rough I can tell yer.”
Mum would tell him not to swear in the house.
According to Dad there was no entertainment for the boys once work finished for the day so the jokers organized spitting contests. The competitors would spit from where they sat at the table in the main hut – which was where they ate as well – attempting to hit one of the many flies that crawled around the newspaper-lined walls.
After this revelation Dad usually paused, hoicked loudly, then spat into the open firebox. Our eyes would widen at the accuracy of his aim as the moisture sizzled on the red-hot coals. Mum would call him a filthy old pig. But Dad seemed not to hear her scorn and the suspense heightened as he stared into the flickering flames as though he could see in their changing patterns the events that took place during the building of the bridge on the Waitiwhenua Road.
Finally he would drag his eyes away from the flames and look straight at Pat and me.
“Did I ever tell yer about the Awstralian joker I had workin’ fer me on that bridge?” he would ask. Dishonestly, we would answer no.
“Well,” he’d begin the story yet again. “His name was Bluey and a bigger skite yer’d never find. He was a skiver too and leaned on his shovel all day.”
During the silence that followed while Dad visualized Bluey I would wonder why Dad hadn’t given the shovel to another man if Bluey leaned on it all the time, as Dad had clearly stated that he had only bought one shovel handle. But I dared not ask or interrupt the bridge story in any way.
“Well,” Dad would continue. “Bluey had been everywhere, done everything, saved people and towns and there was nothin’ that he wasn’t an expert at. He reckoned he’d lived with the Abos in Awstralia and they had taught him everything there was to know about Abo medicine.”
“Now, I also had a Maori joker workin’ fer me and he regarded Bluey as a sort of an idol. Tau never got tired of listenin’ to Bluey’s yarns like the rest of us did. Well, one day Tau got a crook guts from a bit of tucker that was a bit off and he took to his bunk. With him having blind faith in Bluey knowin’ all about Abo medicine he asked him to fix him up. Bluey was a mean sort of a cove and he gave Tau a good squiz over, then strokin’ his chin in a professional sorta way told him, ‘Cripes, mate! Yer crook alright. If yer want me true opinion yer won’t last the week out.’ Tau got steadily worse and became barely conscious.” Another long pause was necessary at this point in the story to ensure that we had grasped the seriousness of the situation. Once Dad was sure we had he would continue.
“Me ‘n a couple of the jokers lifted Tau onto the back of the truck and did the best speed we could into the Te Kuiti Hospital. The doctor examined him straight away and reckoned he couldn’t find nothin’ wrong with him but he kept him in the hospital overnight fer observation. The boys and me kipped down in the truck that night and it was rough I kin tell yer. Next mornin’ we went back to the hospital and the doc said Tau had died in the night. Well, yer could have knocked me over with a feather. The doc still reckoned there was nothin’ wrong with Tau so he couldn’t say what he’d died of.”
The final pause of the story came here as Dad waited for us to ask the question we had asked so many times before and knew the answer off by heart.
“What happened to Bluey, Dad?” we would whisper. Dad’s face would contort and glow as red as the fire flames. “What happened to Bluey?” he would echo.
“I sacked the lyin’ bastard. That’s what happened to Bluey.”
Footnote: After Dad passed on I helped sort out his personal belongings. Inside an old cigar box I found a tattered pigskin wallet. Stuffed into the back flap of the wallet were papers so worn that they tore at the folds. I carefully pieced them together and one paper formed an Acceptance of Tender contract from the Waitomo County dated October 1928. The other paper was a detailed account of goods from Zadey’s General Store totaling nine pounds, seven shilling and tuppence.