The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2015 Results

The Legendary Bulldust Bill

Copyright © John Pitman 2015

From old garages comes the intangible odour of burnt oil, rotting grease and an exhaust-sweet reek of petrol. To some an emetic but to other petrol-heads a drug. Add flickering fluoros, floors stained with oily maps, guttural revving of an engines, the burp of rattle guns, screech of jacks, these complete the addiction. And just what is bulldust anyway? Unique Aussie imagination or a pothole for the unwary?

Starting an apprenticeship at a just pimple-free 16 not only did I learn lots about motor mechanics but also life.

Apart from the usual pranks of being sent for an hour-long ‘weight’, collecting a tin of sparks from under the grinder to start a dead engine, looking for a left-handed hammer, the legend of Bulldust Bill was bandied about in many a lunchtime tale sandwiched between jobs. ‘Bill could do that with his eyes closed,’ they’d say, my feet dangling over the mudguard and struggling to remove the V8’s furthest spark plug buried just beyond reach. ‘Of course Bill could undo that with his little finger,’ others would comment, all while I was sweating at the end of a six foot bar on a seized axle nut. ‘A boy could serve a four year apprenticeship in a week working under Bill,’ they’d say. Oh how I wished that this was true; maybe then I could afford to pay off my tools.

As I gained experience around Melbourne workshops, the renowned Bill from Williamstown had also worked in many, his legendary prowess preceding like a shock wave. Fast? Some even suggested he had six fingers on each hand and could do up nuts so quickly they’d weld themselves tight with the friction. Clever? One mechanic vouched that Bill could tune twin SU carburettors with bare toes and tighten the fan belt at the same time. Wow! Strong? At fully six, seven, no, ten feet tall he never used jacks, just bodily lifted the corner of the car up and kicked stands underneath with his foot. Smart? All he had to do was have the phone put next to the exhaust and, hey presto, an instant diagnosis. As for the latest in electronics, they said Bill could put his giant hands across the battery and sense what was going on in the engine’s computer by the tingle in his fingers. Farfetched? What mechanic needed to embellish this Aussie legend?

As life would have it, courtesy of an extended back seat ‘road-test’ in the boss’s wife’s car, our head mechanic had a heart attack, the workshop was short-handed, so the legendary Bill was to start first thing Monday morning. We three grease monkeys couldn’t believe our good fortune; now we’d see, hear and learn more at first hand. No job application or references needed for Bill, his reputation was beyond question. Yes, we were to have the legend himself working alongside us! A real-life trade celebrity! Throughout the workshop there was a buzz of excitement that Friday, the floors were scrubbed two layers of black grime down to the bare pitted concrete and rusty benches wiped until they shone almost dull. Even the outside dunny got royal treatment - a new deodoriser tablet in the cracked bowl and last year’s phone book for paper; it was obvious the boss was sparing no expense. Even the lunchroom table was cleared of dog-eared girlie magazines and the old car seats got some faded curtains thrown over to hide the sharp springs.

“Get a haircut and make sure you wash your overalls over the weekend,” the boss yelled to us as we left, “William Doust’s going to put this workshop on the map for once.”

Certainly Bill was tall; he carried a tool box under each arm and strode like a footballer in overalls right up to the boss, his piercing blue eyes missing little. With dinner plate-hands he insisted on shaking everyone else’s, all the guys grimacing in turn, except when I feigned hand-wash. Finally we would get to see the legend in action, someone I had aspired to emulate all my 24 years.

Then it started.

What hadn’t travelled with the legend was Bill’s extensive use of unimaginable expletives; he was like a one man football team at grand final time. Wrath? Without warning he would let loose at the top of his voice the foulest language. No one was immune from the verbal abuse. Once a customer strayed into the workshop to retrieve his forgotten phone from his car but hastily beat a retreat when Bill angrily suggested he ‘combine toilet with travel and p... off.’ We were flabbergasted at this development. Why hadn’t his reputation included these strange spells of angst?

The boss only let Bill loose with the workshop phone once.

It was the local minister’s wife, Joan, who Bill abused, saying she was ‘another Joan d’Arc and should be barbecued with a steak.” It took a donation into the church roof fund to smooth that over crazy transgression. Still, as a regular customer and forgiving Christian she accepted the boss’s apology, and sizeable cheque.

Soon the boss kept Bill on a tight leash, right away from hearing distance of the phone, and anyone else. Lack of contact with the customers, spare parts guys and salespeople left Bill isolated, something he appeared not to mind. Although he still swore profusely like an ignored politician at the least provocation and sometimes without, maybe this meant he could concentrate more on the actual job. Bill’s work output was prodigious making our boss rich almost overnight. However he never grumbled at his lean wage envelope or that the boss drove a Lamborghini while we qualified for low income tax assistance. Elspeth, the boss’s wife, spent a third of her life at the local hairdresser, another third with a personal trainer doing whatever trainers do and the last third under a cosmetic surgeon. Literally, we thought.

So we had to work hard.

Rumour had it that Bill had been married 20 years before, but his wife had died giving birth in a taxi that had broken down on its way to the hospital; could it be that this explained his quest for perfection in repairs? Apparently he had raised the girl, Marie, by himself, guarding her like his tools, trusting not a single soul close by. I only saw the daughter once after work driving Bill home and gave her a friendly wave. With wavy ringlets, mesmerising eyes which hesitated not a blink, her face lit up in smile and waved back. When I appeared to walk headlong into the doorway, my sole party trick, her hand flew to mouth. My heart pounded like a diesel.

There wasn’t a bolt or nut Bill couldn’t undo, an engine or gearbox too heavy and yet he had a woman’s gentlest touch when needed, no bolt broken or thread did he ever strip. An intuitive mechanic in diagnostics left him without peer, certainly I never saw him make a mistake. Sheer genius. Watching and learning heaps, I was in total awe.

Except for the vengeful language.

Bill had been with us for about a month when one day the boss’s wife dropped off his lunch, ‘tidying up’ the carefully-placed parts on Bill’s bench into the bin on her way past. We waited with bated breath. So after Bill had yelled out to everyone within a kilometres earshot that the boss’s wife was ‘an interfering bitch’ and ‘a lying whore who deserved capital punishment’, the boss’s patience was under extreme pressure.

“Sack him, Herbert,” Elspeth said, her face Botox-frozen in anger.

For the boss it was the last straw, he was facing a very cold bed at night otherwise.

“Now Bill, I have to let you go,” he said, gulping, “but, because I’m a fair man,” as the giant towered a mountain overhead and moving closer with clenched fists, “how about a week, no, a month’s wages in lieu of notice?” From a boss tight as a fish’s bum, this was unheard of generosity. “Top reference too,” he added, feverishly tapping his nose.

That Friday night we all lined up to say farewell and survive another bone-crushing handshake. As the youngest I was the last inline. Wearing a thick leather welding glove hidden behind my back, I faced my hero; could I ever hope to equal his mechanical prowess now?

“All the best, Bill,” I said, quietly adding after everyone was out of earshot, “but I think you’ve got Tourette’s Syndrome.”

“What?” he shouted, as I braced for an outburst.

“It’s a nervous disease; involuntary vocalisations. Maybe you should see a doctor.”

“Smart lad,” he whispered into my ear, clapping me on the shoulder, “must have read the same book, but how else do I have to work only half the year and get paid what I’m worth? Listen Davo, want to come home for tea? We always have fish and chips Friday night, Marie wanted to meet you and somehow we don’t get many visitors.”