Last Wednesday around midnight a bloke hailed me in the City for the inner west. He was middle aged, wearing an unfashionably-cut black suit and employed a particular, old-style smoking mannerism. As I pulled over he gripped his cigarette between the thumb-tip and middle finger, took a last drag then nonchalantly flicked it away, before reaching for the front door.
Immediately I smelt alcohol as he climbed aboard. Yet I judged him only mildly pissed as he proceeded to inquire of my night. ‘Aw, just average mate’, I told him, ‘how was yours’. He leant back in the seat and in a contented voice said, ‘Aw, not bad. The Premier took me to dinner’. ‘What ?’, I said looking across, did I hear him right ? ‘Had a private dinner with Bob and Helena Carr’, he said matter of factly...
Okay I thought, he may be just bullshitting after a few drinks but I wasn’t going to leave it at that. ‘So how did you find him ?’, I asked. ‘Yeah, real good,’ he casually intoned, ‘I was impressed with the bloke’. ‘Do you vote for him ?’, I queried. ‘Nah, I’m from Melbourne...actually right at the start of dinner he asked me about my politics. I told him straight up, "There’s no way I’d vote for you lot !". But then I said the same to Steve Bracks last week. I’m a Liberal voter’.
Further to this he volunteered he’d also run into Kim Beazley recently. Beazley had suggested lunch and by the time my passenger had returned to his office the invitation was formalised. At lunch he’d goaded Beazley, ‘So, you’ve done a Lazarus with a triple by-pass !’. To which big Kim had jovially responded, ‘Still a smart-ass bastard, eh?’.
After he’d spoken warmly of Beazley, I wondered what he thought of Howard. Whilst I won’t reveal his response, he did say they got on okay. Particularly after having lunched together last year in Thailand, with the King. As you do.
Briefly I wondered if he was a dodgy businessman who took a brown paper bag along when dining with politicans. However I quickly dismissed the thought as preposterous, given these politicans were requesting his company. So I asked the obvious question, ‘Why are you getting these invitations ?’. In a laid-back, happens every day manner, he told me his story.
He was the principal of a major Australian funeral company who had the task of delivering European fatalities back home from the Asian tsunami. Without any government approaches or contract submissions, he had immediately offered his services and expertise as a private businessman, for cost only.
Working out of a refrigerated facility at Phuket airport he was washing, dressing and airfreighting the cadavers back to Europe. ‘Mate’, I exclaimed, ‘that’s fantastic, good on you’. ‘Yeah’, he drawled, ‘someone has to do it. It’s my contribution to the relief effort’.
In conjunction with a partner, he was working one month on, 12 days off. This return visit was his first rotation of the roster. ‘How many Europeans died’, I asked. ‘Around 3000', he said. ‘How many are you processing a week ?’ ‘About 70', he replied. He estimated he was looking at a task of some 18 months.
Upon realising the enormity of such a undertaking, I paused and looked at him, but he remained emotionless. His demeanor said, no big deal. But surely it had to have some impact, I thought. ‘But...how..sure, it’s your profession but what about you, are you okay..?’, I asked. He simply shrugged his shoulders and smiled, ‘Yeah, it’s a job’.
Bullshit, he was dealing with bodies which had undergone death by trauma, and been in the sun or water for days, weeks even. Only last week the news reported bodies still being recovered at the rate of 1000 per day.
‘Aren’t they pretty knocked around though ?’, I wondered. ‘Yeah’, he replied, once again with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders, ‘but you don’t worry about it too much. I mean, the adults have had a drink and a root - they’ve lived. It’s the little ones - the kids, some only three months old which is really tough’. And here his voice trailed off.
At the destination, I offered him my hand and thanked him on behalf of ‘all of us’, for his compassion and generosity in Phuket. He was one cool, rough diamond epitomising the Aussie style of rolling up the sleeves and getting stuck in. Without waiting to be asked or seeking an advantage. Onya mate.