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Saturday, 8 November 2014

The first Sydney Harbour tunnel

Crooked Mick decided one year the drought had gone on just a bit too long.  It really was a bad dry spell, even for the Speewah.  First, the trees had started following Mick's dog around, and then even the mirages had dried up, so Mick headed down to Sydney to see what work he could pick up, and Flash Jack and Lazy Harry came with him.  Times were tough everywhere, and they talked on the way about what they would do.

Lazy Harry reckoned he'd heard there was money to be got from holding up a bank, but then Mick pointed out that most of them weren't falling over, so Harry had to think again.  In the end, Harry and Flash Jack opened up their own outdoors barber service, down at Circular Quay.  All they needed was a box for the customers to sit on and their shears, they reckoned.

The trouble was that even city slickers knew a bit about shearing, and they smelled a rat when they saw the tar pot behind the box, ready to be used on any cuts and nicks.  Then again, anybody who saw how they grabbed their customers and held them would be unlikely to line up for a trim, and the word soon spread — "The Mad Barbers" one newspaper called them.  Well the upshot was their business was poor, and they ended up going back to the Speewah, leaving Mick behind in the Big Smoke.

Mind you, I think what really got them going was when this rough bloke from the Rocks came down and said he wanted a good shave and fast.  Looking carefully at the tar-pot, he produced a large pistol, and sat with it in his lap as they put the drop sheet around him, a habit they picked up after the first week, though it didn't work on the sheep at all, the next year when they went back shearing.  Anyhow, this rough bloke settles himself in then gives Flash Jack the eye.

"If you blokes so much as nick me," he says, "I'll shoot you both dead."

"I'm sorry sir," says Flash Jack.  "We don't need your business."

"You do if you don't want to start leaking from holes in your chest," the rough bloke growls, and that makes it final.

Well Flash Jack got the shakes, but Lazy Harry steps in, strops the old cut-throat razor to perfection, lathers him up, shaves him down without so much as a nick.  Standing up and paying, the rough bloke says "That got you going didn't it?  Reckoned your last hour'd come, eh?"

Lazy Harry wipes the razor clean on an old towel.  "No," he says.  "If I'd nicked you, I would have slashed your throat on the next stroke," calm as you like.  But that afternoon, the two of them cleared off for the bush before any more rough blokes could come out of the Rocks for a shave, leaving Mick in the city, all by himself.

Anyhow, there was an election coming on, and the government decided to promise a tunnel under the harbour.  They even went through the act of calling for tenders.  All the big companies were in on the joke, and turned in the quotes their mates the politicians wanted.  They were in a no-lose position, because they all asked for squillions to do the job.  This saved their mates the politicians from having to really build a tunnel, but if something went wrong and somebody got given a contract, they'd make squillions and squillions, because there was this double entry system of accounting that they all used.

Well Mick didn't wake up to what was going on, so he made a serious attempt at quoting on the job.  He walked down to Circular Quay, checked that both sides of the harbour were level, which isn't really all that silly when you consider how little else in a big city is on the level.  Anyhow, he checked the site, picked up a bit of sandstone to see what it weighed, estimated the distance with his trained bushman's eye, and went off to price tools in a hardware shop.

He reckoned he needed four crowbars, four picks, four shovels, four wheelbarrows, two sweat rags (seeing it was only a small job), and a few other odds and ends.  All up, buying only the best, he reckoned that he could get all the gear for fifteen hundred, he estimated the other costs, mainly food and drink, at three and a half thousand, and he allowed himself six thousand or so, and in the end he offered to do the whole job for eleven thousand.

Well when the politicians saw this quote from Mick, they were amazed, especially as the cheapest prices from the big firms were all for squillions and squillions.  They had a quick chat round the back of Parliament House, and said to each other that if this bloke's on the level (and that was unlikely in a big city like Sydney, they all agreed) but if he's really on the level, they said, well maybe we oughta get the job done.

Then one of the wiser ones suggested that maybe this is a put-up job by the other side, the Opposition, something to do with the election that's coming, and so they called Mick in to look him over and question him extra carefully.

"Look here, Mick," said one of them, "why do you need four of all these tools?  Are you only using four people on the job?"

"No," says Crooked Mick, "I'm doing it all meself."

"Then why do you need four of everything?"

Mick said patiently, like he's talking to a baby, "Because I always use one in each hand."

Well they looked him up and down, and then one of them made the point that while he was quite big, they can't see that he's got any more than the standard issue of everything, including hands.

"Look," says Mick, "I'm going to dig from the north side in the morning, then in the afternoon, I'll get a ferry to town, eat me lunch on the way over, and dig from the south side.  I plan to meet up in the middle on the nineteenth day.  I thought them ferry boat people might get upset if I took me tools across, so I thought I'd have two sets.  Anyhow, the break'll give me tools time to cool down."

This was probably the longest speech Mick ever made, but the politicians weren't impressed.  You see, those blokes'd mag the tail off a Speewah scrub bull before breakfast, and they thought Mick was real taciturn, which made him a threat in their eyes.

Their chief worrier came back with another question.  "What happens if you don't meet up in the middle?" he asks.

"Then you'll get two tunnels for the price of one," says Mick, calm as you like.

Anyhow they had the election the next week, and the other mob got in, and changed everything, which included cancelling the plans for the tunnel.  Still, when the drought broke two days later, Mick upped hooks and went back to the Speewah, and gave the contracting game the miss.  At least when you're shearing, he said, the sheep don't ask stupid questions.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

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