February 1983. The Ash Wednesday bushfires are out, apart from the odd hotspot, but the smell of the burnt eucalypt and livestock and the smoke haze still hang in the air. On this particular day, a motley collection of fire crews, SES, Police, welfare workers and volunteers gather around 44 gallon drum braziers because it’s turned cold and wet now. Coolers full of beer and soft drinks are there for the taking, donated by who knows or cares at this point and there’s sandwiches and tea in the CWA hall.
A semi-official debrief from team leaders takes place in front of the exhausted and unshowered small crowd. Experienced hands watch for worrying signs amongst those they know; too much grog, not enough water, too much toughness, not enough despair.
Several pairs of eyes are on the young bloke who’s lost everything, apart from his family, on a dairy farm that hasn’t seen serious fire in three generations. After shooting his maimed prize cattle and agisting the rest, he’s worked every fire crew shift he can because he can’t face going home. His wife and kids are at her mother’s. His eyes are alert but glazed and he only seems to be listening, left leg twitching and a tic around his right eye.
As the last of the brief reports is finishing up, a battered twin cab pulls up noisily on the edge of the group. A tall, solid man steps out and slams the door behind him. Striding over to the gathering, he waits on the edge until he hears ‘Well, that its about it. See you all tomorrow.’ He shoulders his way through to the young farmer, reaches into his pocket and shoves a fat wad of notes into the dazed man’s hand.
His voice booming in the dusk, he says ‘Mate, just heard about what’s happened and I jumped in me truck and drove all night to get here. Just wish it could be more.” The young man has said nothing. “No, don’t thank me, least I can do. Things are a bit rough up our way too. What with the drought and Shirlene’s cancer and that but right now you need it more than us. So …”. Now he’s noticed the silence around him.
Beryl from the CWA sidles up to the young man and whispers “Come and have a cuppa, luv. I’ll look after the money for you until you’re ready.” He allows himself to be led away. He of the bullhorn voice now turns to a small group of CFA volunteers and says “Poor bugger’s in shock, prob’ly. It’s just, soon as I heard, I ..” “Yeah, so you said”, one of the crew says, with tight lips. “I just wish it could be more but ..” “I think you’ve done enough for one day”, comes the response.
“Yeah, prob’ly. Mind if I grab a beer?’ He starts to reach into a cooler box and another voice says firmly “They’re donated. For the CFA.” After a pause. “Pub’s open. Some of the journos are still in there.”
Roaring Bull’s face brightens. “Sure, that’s a good idea.”
Cold as ice comes, “Thought you might.”
The crowd disperses, with assorted grunts and nods, and the man bowls through the front door of the pub to tell his story.