Story

Ever-Ready Ted

I have always liked the thought of living in Darwin. The leisurely lifestyle, the tropical warmth, the fishing and the people have always appealed to me. So, the last time I was there, I filled a few hours staring into real estate agents’ windows, comparing prices and wishfully thinking I could afford something at the top end of the market.
I was gazing through the plate-glass of a Cavanagh Street agency when a photograph of a property caught my attention. There it was: my dream! Beneath a photo of green trees and palms that seemed to press against the white sand and clear blue water of a tropical foreshore was written: “Absolute water frontage on Darwin harbour. This beautiful rainforest block has fantastic sea views and rises from an A1 quality beach. This is the best vacant land on the harbour. Ideal for a rural retreat and within five kilometres of the centre of Darwin. Call Colin.”
I stood drooling at the photograph until I became aware someone was standing beside me. The figure was reflected in the window. Our eyes met in the glass and he beamed me a broad friendly smile. I turned towards him. He was in his mid thirties; tallish but overweight. His complexion was pallid and his jowls had already given in to gravity. They bulged unhealthily over the collar of his immaculately ironed short-sleeved white shirt. His tie was that of a well known private boys’ school in one of Sydney’s more salubrious suburbs. He indicated the photograph.
“It’s not bad is it!”
“I don’t know why anyone would want to sell it,” I replied. “I’ve always wanted a place like that.”
“It could be yours,” he said, his expression suddenly serious.
“What price are they asking?”
He gestured loftily. “What does price matter when ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’ is at stake?”
I was impressed. It isn’t every real estate agent who can quote Shakespeare.
“I suspect it depends on the state of your bank balance,” I retorted, and was surprised to see him flinch, as if my words had a physical impact. When he answered he was more subdued.
“Perhaps you’re right. I suppose all dreams have their price.” He paused and looked at me quizzically before asking, “I take it you are interested in buying locally?”
“I’m thinking about living here,” I told him. “I recently sold up down south. Now I’d like to put down roots again.”
His eyes lit up like he’d won a lottery. “A southerner eh!” To a resident of Darwin and its environs, anyone from elsewhere is a southerner. “When do you want to see it?”
“How much is it?”
He told me.
“Then there’s no point in my looking at it,” I told him.
He smiled wryly, possibly in the mistaken acknowledgement that my negotiating technique was the equal of his. “You’ll feel differently after you’ve seen it. Besides, the vendor tells me there is a certain amount of flexibility to the price being asked.”
Although I pretended not to know it at the time, real estate values in Darwin were going through one of those periodic slumps that occur in the property market.
“Put an offer in,” he persisted. “You can only be refused.”
In retrospect, I can only assume he believed I was playing hard to get in my role as a prospective purchaser. I said, “I’m fairly busy at the moment,” but my rebuttal only seemed to make him more insistent.
“What about tomorrow morning?”
“I’m not sure what I’m doing as yet.”
“How about nine o’clock?”
I was tempted to take a look. The weather had been lousy for activities associated with being a tourist and he seemed pleasant enough. Perhaps he’s telling the truth, I thought. It is a buyer’s market. Maybe they will drop the price. Besides, there are worse ways of spending what the forecasters claimed would be a rainy morning. Especially when you are at a loose end in an unfamiliar town.
“Alright,” I agreed.
His grin belonged to the cat that got the cream. “Meet me here,” he purred. “By the way,” he extended his hand, “My name is Colin.” I would never have guessed.
I met him the next morning as agreed, and was amazed to see the chubby but neatly dressed businessman had been transformed into a slightly obese bushman. The white shirt had been replaced by a sweatshirt and he was wearing faded denim jeans, scuffed R.M. Williams riding boots and a cowboy hat. The only reminder of the man I had met the previous day was the plastic folder he clutched in one hand. I presumed it contained documentation pertaining to the property.
“The car is over there!”
Like an attentive usher he led me to a fawn coloured four-wheel-drive vehicle. It was near new and shining clean. Colin noticed me looking at it.
“Its got air-conditioning. You need it up here. Especially at this time of the year. The humidity gets terrible.”
Inside we strapped on our seat belts. I noticed there was a two-way car radio.
“Very handy things, car radios,” said Colin. “Especially up here. You never know when you might need help. If you break down up here it’s possible no one will find you for days. But with one of these …” he indicated the radio “… no problems!”
To my surprise, instead of driving towards the harbour, where I thought the property was, we took the Stuart Highway out of town to the south. There was nothing in that direction but dust and desert until Katherine, Alice Springs and Adelaide. I queried our direction.
“I thought the property was on the harbour?”
“It is.”
“So why are we going this way? Why are we driving away from the harbour?”
“Because the property is around the other side of the harbour.”
“But the advertisement in the window stated that the property was only five kilometres from the city?”
“It is,” said Colin. “By water …”
“By water?” I echoed incredulously.
“That’s right. But it’s a scenic trip by road too. You’ll love it!”
“Why aren’t we going by water?”
“Because the harbour is too choppy today. It gets dangerous when the wind picks up. So today we have to go by car.”
“Whereabouts on the other side of the harbour are we heading?”
“Towards Mandurah.”
“How far is that?”
“About a hundred and fifty kilometres.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “I don’t believe this. Are you telling me this property is five kilometres away by water yet over a hundred by road?”
“That’s right! It’s a big harbour! But don’t let the road distance adversely influence you before you see it. You’ll love it.”
We turned towards a place called Berry Springs and I consoled myself with the thought that at least I was getting to see the country at someone else’s expense. There was plenty of time for small talk and Colin appeared to feel obligated to fill in every second. Whether I was interested or not, he was determined to tell me all about himself. Fifty kilometres down the road he was in the midst of telling me the story of his life. “That’s right!” he said cheerfully. “I’ve lived up here in the Territory most of my life—apart from going to school and a couple of forays down south.” And then, in a confiding tone, he added: “My father is Ever-Ready Ted, you know.”
I gathered that I was meant to know who Ever-Ready Ted was—but I didn’t. Stifling a yawn I revealed my ignorance.
“Besides being your father, who is Ever-Ready Ted? I’ve never heard of him.” Colin’s fleshy jaw fell open and he looked at me blankly, not sure if I was serious. “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Ever-Ready Ted?”
“No. Is he famous?”
“Famous,” Colin was aghast, “he’s a legend! Everyone up here has heard of Dad. He was one of the originals! One of those who helped open up the north.”
“I’m sorry. I haven’t heard his name until now.”
“Ah! You’re a southerner, aren’t you!”
There being nothing better to do, I asked Colin to tell me about Ever-Ready Ted. “How did he get a name like that?”
It was like opening a sluice gate. Colin’s words flowed like water. Colin told me his father had been in the barge business.
“Before World War Two, the best way to move goods around up here was by sea. For half the year the dirt roads and tracks were impassable because of the Wet. They still are today. Dad went into the barge business in a big way. He owned half a dozen self-propelled barges that traded between Darwin and what is now known as Malaysia. He’d deliver supplies to missionaries in Arnhem Land and for the return trip pick up rare timbers from the loggers based on the islands in the Fly River estuary off New Guinea. He got the nickname because he was always prepared to accept a cargo—hence Ever-Ready Ted … get it?”
I got it. It was obvious Colin enjoyed talking about his father. He went on, “But with the war, the army had to improve communications for the defence of Darwin. They built tarmac roads and, after the war ended, motor transport became cost-efficient …’ Colin stopped in mid-sentence and, taking his eyes off the pot-holed road and jeopardising both our lives, stared at me and said, “I’m astounded you’ve never heard of Ted.”
He shook his head in disbelief and, to my relief, turned his attention to the road again. He kept on talking as he drove.
“Once he was somewhere in Indonesia when he came across an assessor from Lloyds—you know, the maritime insurance company … have you heard of them?”
I assured him I had heard of Lloyds.
“Well, Lloyds were going to lose a fortune in compensation for a vessel that had run aground on a reef. There was little wrong with the ship except that it was stuck fast. The danger was that the next heavy sea would probably break her up. It was a race against time for Lloyds. The company had to try and get her off—even at great cost—as the insurance bill for the ship in the worst scenario would certainly be more expensive. Dad went to the assessor and said ‘My barge could pull her off. But what is it worth to you?’ ‘Anything,’ said the distraught assessor whose future employment prospects were tied up with how he resolved the problem. ‘Narne your price.’ So Dad says the first outrageous figure that entered his head. The assessor gulped but agreed. They shook hands and Dad took his best barge to sea. You see, the barges were like tugs. They had huge engines in relation to their tonnage. Unladen they could tow an ocean liner.”
Colin had to wrestle with the steering wheel while we negotiated a washed-away section of the road. There was a loud thump and the shock of a collision shook the car as the chassis hit an unseen obstacle.
Colin said, “I hope that wasn’t the sump.” He stopped the car to check. Reassured, he got back in to find he had mud caked in clods over his boots and halfway to his knees.
“Oh no! Look at this muck would you!” he said, disgusted. “This is a hell of a way to make a dollar!”
He was not happy and we drove on in silence for a change. I decided the talkative Colin was better than the silent one and five minutes later asked him: “So what happened to Ever-Ready Ted and the barge?”
Colin’s face brightened immediately and he picked up exactly where he left off.
“Dad got out to the reef and found the situation was exactly as the assessor said. Other boats had tried to pull the vessel off for salvage but had broken their cables. But Dad had a special weapon he hadn’t told the assessor about. He had what would have been the equivalent of space-age technology for those days. He had got hold of a new nylon hawser! They attached it and Ted took off from a standing start, steering for the open ocean. As the cable tightened, the barge stopped dead in the water with its engines full ahead. The cable vibrated and stretched until it twanged like a piano wire. Waves broke over the bow of the barge until Ted feared he’d be swamped, then the grounded ship slid off the reef towards the barge like it was on the end of a piece of elastic. When they examined the hawser afterwards it had been stretched from thick to thin and was useless. Dad still reckons that rope was the best investment he’s ever made. Part of the rope is on the wall of a pub in town …”
By this time I knew Colin would talk about Ever-Ready Ted if he had a mouth full of gravel.
“We turn off here,” Colin suddenly declared.
An hour and several concrete causeways covered with water and three creek crossings had passed while we chatted about Ever-Ready Ted. Colin now turned the vehicle onto a boggy sidetrack. He halted and locked the Toyota’s front wheels into four-wheel-drive. Before continuing he called his office on the radio.
“Hello Raylene. Yes, Colin here. I’ve just turned onto the track into Mica Beach with the client. Yes, I’ll call you again when we get there. Any messages for me? None. Oh well, I suppose we can’t be popular all the time.”
Colin replaced the microphone and thrust the car into gear. There was a run-off ditch alongside the track. Probably dug by a grader during the dry season to carry away storm water from the monsoonal downpour. Somehow both the track and ditch seemed to converge until we were driving down a swiftly flowing creek.
“I don’t think much of the access road, Colin. Is this a gazetted road?”
“You mean a road maintained by local council?”
“Yes.”
“Well, no. Not really.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it isn’t. But if you buy the property you have right of way onto it.”
“Right of way? A right of way implies access is through someone else’s property.”
Colin looked sheepish. “Yes, that’s right.”
“I take it the right of way is legal and documented?”
“Of course!” He was offended. “What’s wrong? Do you think I’m some kind of shonky real estate agent? Don’t you trust me?”
I knew you never trust a real estate agent who says, “Don’t you trust me?” but I lied and said, “Yes, of course I do. But as a prospective purchaser I’m just trying to understand the situation.”
“As you should,” said Colin, appeased.
I took a deep breath and asked, “Who owns the land across which the purchaser of the property would have right of way, Colin?”
“Ah! Good question! The Warumpi tribe.”
“The Warumpi tribe?”
“Yes. That’s right! Perhaps I should warn you—although another agent might not—the said right of access is currently the subject of a land claim.”
“So this right of access to the property may not be able to be used if the Warumpi’s land claim is successful?”
“That is a distinct possibility but it is no more than that at the present time. Don’t forget you will still be able to get to your exclusive rural retreat by boat! Imagine the privacy! It’s the perfect property for someone wanting to get away from it all.”
“But how would I transport the materials needed to build my perfect retreat if the tribe decide to close my road access to civilisation?”
“That won’t happen,” insisted Colin as if he couldn’t see why I thought access could be a problem. “They’re great people! Besides, you can always buy a barge!”
While still driving he flipped open the plastic folder he had been carrying when we first met that morning and passed me a piece of photocopied paper with an advertisement on it. It was from Buy a Boat magazine.
“That’s what you need,” Colin said. “You’ll need one about thirty feet long with a drop-ramp bow that will allow vehicles to roll on and off. You could transport your materials and tradesmen across the harbour and pick up the newspapers and milk at the same time. A barge like that would be perfect and it just so happens I know the owner. I might even be able to get you a discount.”
“What would happen on days like today when the water is too rough to cross the harbour?”
He looked at me with pity. “You stay home!”
I began to regret agreeing to see the property but, after mulling our conversation about in my mind for a minute, asked, “Is it possible that you own the barge in the advertisement you just showed me?”
Colin turned to me. “No! Of course I don’t! That would be underhanded of me.” Then, almost as a throwaway line he added, “Dad does.”
The car was lurching through foliage hanging towards the watercourse we were
following. Water was seeping through the bottom of the door and my feet were sodden. Depressed by what I had got myself into I said, “I’m not very impressed with the access, Colin.”
“This is actually an all-weather road,” he assured me, “but it does tend to get overgrown during the wet season.”
Within minutes I saw what he meant. It got worse. The spear-grass either side of the track was higher than Colin’s four-wheel-drive. I was grateful when the watercourse went one way and we went another. The water drained from around my feet but then the track disappeared altogether and we were pushing through a wall of spear-grass with our bull-bar, like a lawn mower through an overgrown garden.
“I’m sure the track goes this way,” Colin said, but his voice lacked conviction. He swung the steering wheel the other way. “No. It must be this way.”
I didn’t know how he could tell the difference. The spear-grass seemed never-ending.
“I’m glad I put shade-cloth over the radiator,” Colin said, more to himself than to me. “The seeds clog up the airflow and, before you know it, you’re not going anywhere!”
He decided to stop and see if he could work out where we were. He climbed on the roof of the car to see over the spear-grass.
“Yes! We’re okay! I’ve got my bearings now I can see the old water tower. If we head towards that we’ll be fine!”
He jumped down but let out an exclamation of pain as he landed.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’ve twisted my ankle!” He gingerly put his weight on his damaged foot. “Ah! It hurts but I don’t think it is broken.”
“Do you want me to drive?”
“No. I’ll be fine.” His expression was worthy of a martyr.
We went on. After another ten minutes of pushing blindly through the spear-grass we bumped into something solid. The impact threw both of us forward in our seat-belts and the engine stalled. Colin got out to inspect the damage.
“We’ve hit the old stockyard,” he called out after spreading the spear-grass with his arms to see what was behind it. He hobbled back to the driver’s side. “We’ll just have to go around to the left of it,” he explained as he hauled himself back into his seat. There was a ripping sound. Colin felt the seat of his pants. “Oh no! Now I’ve torn my jeans!” His voice was both angry and exasperated.
We backed away from the stockyard we couldn’t see and cautiously manoeuvred to its left. The spear-grass began to thin and sky appeared between the stalks. We caught a glimpse of the sea and then the spear-grass opened out until a belt of saplings barred our path. They looked impenetrable.
“Don’t worry,” said Colin with bravado I don’t think he really felt. “I came prepared.”
“I hope we get back by dark,’ I said.
“Never fear while Colin’s here,” he panted, sawing away at the nearest sapling with a bow-shaped bush saw. Perspiration soaked his armpits and the back of his shirt. He cut down another and then another. “I didn’t think there would be so much new growth,” he said wearily as he limped to yet another small tree.
“Would you like some help?” I offered.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
I took my turn bending my arm while Colin collapsed, exhausted, mopping his brow with his handkerchief. Soon there was a gap wide enough to get the car through. A little further on we stopped atop a ridge overlooking the foreshore I had seen in the photograph in the real estate agency’s window.
“There it is.” Colin was too tired to be triumphant.
“At last.”
Colin made another call on the car radio. “Raylene? It’s Colin. I just wanted to let you know we made it in. Yes, we’re okay. Are there any messages for me? None. I see. I’ll speak to you later then.”
We got out and gazed at the seascape. Colin gave a sigh that expressed his relief that we had arrived.
“Well now, what do you think of that?” he asked with an expansive sweep of his arm. “It was worth the effort, wasn’t it!”
The view was breathtaking. Five miles across the harbour we could see Darwin. “Where are the boundaries?”
Becoming the real estate agent again, Colin explained them to me. Within the perimeter he pointed out the land fell away from the hilltop we were standing on to sea-level in the form of a precipitous cliff. At the bottom of the cliff was a paperbark swamp. On the beach, by the derelict and rusting remains of the hull of an old barge, two large crocodiles basked in the sunlight that, despite the clouds moving in, warmed the sand.
“It’s a bit steep.”
“Perfect for a pole home.”
“If you can get it here.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, in my opinion, I’d be surprised if he could give the block away. So I said: “I don’t think it is quite what I’m looking for, Colin.”
Colin’s shoulders slumped and the professional panache he had maintained until then deserted him.
“Is it the road? The access? What decided you to knock it back? Should I have waited and brought you over by boat? I thought you might head back down south … I should have waited for a better day.”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference. It isn’t right for me, that’s all.”
Back at the car Colin discovered he had been standing next to an ants’ nest. They had mistaken his trousered leg for their tunnel home and now, disillusioned, were attacking him. Colin slapped, scratched and swore. He leapt about and, taking off and turning his jeans inside out, shook the ants from his pants. His pale legs were red with welts and bites. After carefully putting his pants back on, he said sourly, “Let’s get out of here.”
Raindrops the size of small pears splattered sporadically on the windscreen as we slowly drove hack the way we had come in! low gear. The wheels slid and sometimes failed to grip on the wet grass. When we came to the saplings we had earlier cut a path through, a back-lashing branch whipped away the antenna for the car radio. Colin was distraught.
“Oh no! Not the aerial!”
Although we painstakingly searched in the grass we did not find it. Colin repeatedly tried to contact Raylene but the only response was static. Disenchanted with modern technology he slammed his fist on the dashboard.
“Bloody thing!”
We worked our way back along the track and, as we did so, I noticed an old house through the trees that I hadn’t noticed on the way out. Even from a distance and surrounded by spear-grass, I could see it was massively constructed and had a commanding view over the harbour towards Darwin.
“Who owns that place? That’s the place! That’s twice as good as the site you’ve just shown me.”
“It’s twice the price too,” said Colin, his voice flat. “That’s our place.”
“Your place?”
“That’s right. I grew up there. Dad built that house. It’s a ruin now though. The big cyclone saw to that. No one lives there any more.”
“What happened?”
“Cyclone Tracy. That’s what happened. Dad had visions of a cattle empire once. We had hundreds of cattle here. Now the only things living here are bats and termites. The spear-grass has reclaimed the pastures.”
Knowing he would, I waited for Colin to go on. As he clutched at the steering wheel with both hands, his bulky figure appeared to deflate.
“Dad thought he’d built it strong enough to withstand cyclones.” He shook his head sadly. “But it wasn’t. Mum was standing in front of the plate-glass window when the wind blew it in. Dad had taped it but the wind was too strong and the window too big. We couldn’t get her to hospital. There was no hospital anyway. She bled to death in his arms. I was only a youngster but I saw it all. Dad refused to live here after that but he wouldn’t let go of the place either. Now he’s changed his mind. We’ve subdivided the land and we’re selling it.”
“Was the wrecked barge on the beach yours too?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And the land you’ve just shown me …”
“Yes, that is ours too.”
Not long after that we became bogged. As we tried to extricate the vehicle, I was first to do all the pushing and shoving and then, while Colin heaved, I took over the steering wheel. But we only dug ourselves deeper into the mud. Finally, Colin slipped and fell headlong in the gluey muck. He sat up spitting dirt.
“I hate this bloody country,” he yelled to the sky. “I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!” he repeated, slapping the mud. “I’ve always hated it.”
Colin looked at me, his face filled with despair.
“If I had my way I would never leave the air-conditioned comfort of my office! It’s awful out here. If it moves it stings. If it isn’t the dust it’s the mud. If it isn’t the heat it’s the humidity. I hate the bloody bush. It’s uncivilised and it just isn’t me!”
“Then why do you live in the Territory? Why don’t you leave and live down south?”
“I did! I went down south for a while. I liked it! It was cool and clean.”
“Why did you come back?”
He stared at me as if having to tell me the obvious.
“Because no one knew me down south. No one knew who I was. Down south I was a nobody. No one knew I was Ever-Ready Ted’s son! They didn’t know who I was!”
We had a long wait until we were rescued.

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