Blue Dust Day: Gary McHugh

“Nah, like I said mate, you would never, ever catch me riding any sort of bike without a helmet; too bloody dangerous, I value my health and safety a lot more than that.  Do you know, seven out of every ten pushbike riders have experienced some sort of serious accident, usually head-related?  Nah, always look after your body, Jerry, and it’ll look after you.  Anyway, I’ll just finish this and we’ll get cracking, eh?”

He took a final, deep drag on his cigarette, flicked it into the garden and walked to the back of the ute.  As he was slipping into his dust coat and before fitting his mask, Clarence turned to Jerry with one more word of advice.

“Mate, if you are dead-set determined to get into riding, then all I can say is make sure you have the right safety gear, okay?  Head, body, legs and feet; they all need to be looked after.”

Fitting his own dust mask, Jerry looked at his long time friend and business partner.  “That’s what I like about you Clarry, always one for the health and safety.  Thanks for the tip mate.”

“No problem, buddy.  Always happy to help make the world a safer place,” Clarence said with a tug of his imaginary forelock.

“Right, the usual deal then Jerry, me old China plate.  You’ve got the first two walls and I’ll take the second two, but give me the taps this time.”  And off to work they went, not quite whistling but happy in the knowledge they were providing a valuable community service and earning a pretty good quid out of it.

Clarence and Jerry had set up their business a few years earlier on the back of the mining boom.  With a shortage of new properties on the market owing to the high demand for housing, more people were renovating their existing properties.  This meant stripping back walls, often only to find the unexpected presence of asbestos which needed to be removed by specialists.  Specialists like Clarence and Jerry’s business venture As Best As It Gets — Removalists of Dangerous Materials.

Entering the old brick and tile home, the two men started the preparatory work.  The owner, having already left the house for a couple of days, had removed all the cupboards and sideboards which meant the kitchen walls were ready to be stripped back to the brick.  But first, the room needed to be isolated.  After taping the heavy, black plastic sheeting to the empty door frame between the kitchen and the dining room to prevent dust seepage, the boys looked at each other and nodded.  Jerry attacked the first of his two walls with a large, paint-splattered crowbar; pulling, plying and persuading the asbestos from the nails that had secured it to the jarrah batons for the past sixty years.

Meanwhile, Clarence slipped through the plastic sheeting to pump down a quick ciggie in the backyard while he waited for his turn on the crowbar.  The boys never worked in one room together, too dangerous according to Clarence.  “What if,” he had once prophesised “in the heat of the action, both of us going at it like honey-eaters on a wattle, we bumped into each other, and, in the confusion, accidentally pulled our dust masks right off our flamin’ faces?  Where would we be then, Jerry?  I’ll bloody tell ya where mate, right up the old shit creek without a flamin’ paddle, that’s where, mate.  We’d be cactus.  Nah pal, it’s strictly one-person-per-room in this business, one-person-per-room.”

Jerry never questioned his mate when it came to matters of occupational health and safety, or any other form of health and safety for that matter.  Never had done, never would.  He knew that behind those constantly squinting, smoke-filled eyes, and that leathery tar-yellowed face lay a brain that just didn’t quit, at least when it came to matters of keeping healthy and safe.  Yep, as far as big Jezza was concerned, Clarry was “the oracle” when it came to staying safe.

After about an hour or so, Jerry had cleared most of his two walls, so he joined Clarence outside for a breather.  It was another hot Perth day and the sun had swung over to the west side of the house in its eternal quest to bake everything that lay below it.  The plants in the garden were hanging their flowers to the scorched earth and the huge black crows couldn’t be bothered flying; instead, they hopped from shade to shade with their beaks wide open, unusually quiet for a change.  Unfortunately, the house the boys were working on had a kitchen with a west-facing wall and … already the old thermometer on the verandah was nudging 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

“How’d ya go mate, get them both done?” asked Clarence as he saw Jerry emerge from the old brick house.

“Got the first one done mate but I’ll finish the second later, too flamin’ hot.  I reckon you can have a go at your two now.”

“No worries mate, rest ya bones under that tree over there, there’s cold water in the ute, don’t forget to put the lid back on the esky.  This shouldn’t take me too long.”  And with that he hiked up his pants through his dust suit, slid his face mask down from his forehead and grabbed the crowbar from Jerry.

After 45 minutes of ripping, pulling and banging at the stubborn asbestos that was doggedly determined to stay where it had been for more than half a century, Clarence was drenched with thick, dusty sweat.  The wall he was working on was hot to the touch and the heat hanging about him was sending imaginary black spots to the back of his eyes.  “Fark this for a flamin’ joke,” he said aloud as he stood back to survey his work.  He had only managed to clear one of his walls and even then it wasn’t totally stripped.  Bits of cladding with clumps of deadly blue asbestos, shredded at the edges, were clinging to the jarrah batons, which in turn were attached to the brown bricks of the house.

Hurling the crowbar to the floor in disgust he headed outside to where Jerry was reading a newspaper under the tree.

“Right,” said Clarence, “That’s enough for today mate, I’m sweating like a whore in church, we can finish off tomorrow, time for a coldie, whaddya reckon?”

The following day, Clarence pulled up outside Jerry’s flat and gave the usual “beep beep” to let him know he was there.  Tuning the car stereo away from his brother’s “FM rubbish” to Racing Radio, Clarence didn’t look up when Jerry got into the ute “Bloody Sandy borrowed me ute last night and didn’t have the decency to change the radio back,” he said as he fiddled with the dial.

Right, stand by for scratchings from Pinjarra,” the empty voice on the tinny AM station was saying.  “Race one, take out numbers three and seven, race two is clear, race three, take out numbers twelve, thirteen and fourteen …” and on it went.

“Okay,” said Clarence as he turned to Jerry, “let’s get cracking and  … Jesus Christ, what’s that on ya head, mate?”

“It’s a bike helmet,” Jerry answered proudly.

“I know it’s a flamin’ bike helmet, but what’s it doing there?  Where’s ya bloody bike?  Are you ridin’ to work today?”

“Bike’s in the shed mate, thought I would give the old skid lid a bit of a trial run, you know, wear it in.  Me mum bought it for me yesterday.”

“Riiiight,” Clarence replied, as he slipped the ute into gear and pulled out into the traffic.  “But does it, you know, really need wearing in, mate?”

“Well mate,” said Jerry looking at his friend with more than a glimmer of admiration in his eye.  “You’re the one to thank for this, you always told me, if you’re gunna take the time to get the right safety gear then make sure it fits properly.  Remember that time we spent the afternoon at the pub with our dust masks on as we were preparing to set up As Best As It Gets, all in the name of health and safety?”

“Heh, heh, yeh, I remember that, made it hard to drink a beer but, and more than a couple of people thought we were gunna rob the place.  But it paid off in the end.  Not one bit of dust has passed through that mask since I’ve had it, fits like a flamin’ face glove it does.”

“Well then,” said Jerry.  “There you go, I’m doing the same with me helmet.  After all, you were the one who said I should get the right protection for me new hobby.  I’m gunna wear it all day.  Going late night shopping tomorrow to pick up the elbow and knee pads.”

“Mate, I like your dedication to safety.  Top marks.” And with that the two dangerous material removal specialists headed off to finish yesterday’s job.

Two hours later Clarence was snoozing under the tree when an all-mighty bang jolted him awake.  It took a few seconds to register where he was and what he had heard, but by the time he got to his feet he knew exactly what had happened.

“Load-bearing wall!  The flamin’ ceiling!”  And he bolted for the house.  Running through the door and peeling back the plastic sheeting, he entered the kitchen where he was confronted by a mass of rubble, bricks, plaster, wooden beams and thick, gray dust.  And sure enough, there was the crowbar lodged in a split jarrah baton that had obviously been instrumental in holding up the roof for the past sixty years.    “Fuck!  Me flamin’ mask,” he shouted as he pulled it down from his forehead.  “Jerry, where are ya mate?  Jerry!”

Clarence was starting to think the worst, when out of the rubble popped Jerry, dinner plate-eyed and covered in dust and mortar, but seemingly undamaged.  The helmet, which was still on his head, had two large dents in it, and a deep scratch along the front.  “Whoa, what the fark happened there?” he said to nobody in particular.  He reached out a shaky hand to his head, felt the bicycle helmet and looked around him.  “I’m okay, I’m bloody okay, me helmet, it saved me bloody life!”

Stumbling outside to the shady tree, Jerry sank to his knees, removed his helmet and slung his dust mask into the garden.  He noticed Clarence standing above him with a relieved grin on his face.  He was saying something.

“ … like I said mate, it’s all about health and safety, health and safety.  Always look after your body, Jerry, and it’ll look after you.  Right, what are we gunna tell this flamin’ owner when he gets back?”

The mask Jerry had thrown into the garden lay there in the heavy heat.  A crow bounced over to it, picked it up in its beak, held onto it for a few seconds, then tossed it aside.  When it landed the small writing on the side of the mask was visible in the glaring sun; “Keeps out all major dusts except asbestos.”  The crow pecked at it once more and then turned away.

© Gary McHugh 2021

Gary McHugh is a journalist by trade who, after working at various WA publications, crossed over to the dark side where he worked for a number of WA Government departments. Gary’s writing is a hotchpotch of dark humour tinged with a dose of old school Australiana (think bad guy wearing Surfer Joe thongs and watching Hey Hey It’s Saturday). Gary hasn’t had much in the way of publishing glory but he puts that down to laziness. Instead, he tends to hang his hat on the couple of “highly commended” successes he’s enjoyed through various competitions, but vows the time has come to release his thinking on an unsuspecting world. “If I can just get off my arse,” he said. Along with Danielle Haigh, Gary is a coordinator of Freo Writers at The Meeting Place.

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