Thursday, 28 April 2011

Chapter 18: Stories, from the Field Book of a Reluctant Surveyor - The Dispute

   "How many more?" the chainman looked across with the sledge hammer poised in his hand.
   The surveyor glanced at his watch. Four forty-five. The chainman's concern was justified. It was getting late and it was time they commenced packing the equipment away. He looked down the grassy slope and checked the position of the tall figure making its way slowly up the hill. Probably a curious neighbor wanting to chat and learn something about his land. He was getting closer. It would not be long before he would reach them. They should finish before he arrived.
   He looked back towards the chainman. "Only another three. One there, another there and then one in the corner. We'll be finished in a minute.”
   The surveyor referred to his notes and set another angle giving the chainman line and distance allowing him to proceed driving a wooden peg into the ground. He again checked the position of the figure.
   The man was tall and lean. His face was still concealed under a dark, wide brimmed hat that drooped at the edges. He carried a stick with which he occasionally tapped the ground or swung over his shoulder. A small short-haired dog appeared and scurried between the tussocks of grass and then darted from one side of the man to the other.
   "Line?" the chainman expressed his impatience.
   The surveyor gave the chainman line and distance on top of the peg and then turned the next angle.
   "Hi, how yah goin'?"
   The surveyor pulled back from the theodolite surprised to see the man was already upon them. He stood slightly behind the surveyor, leaning on his stick. A wide smile lit up his tanned weather-beaten face. "Not bad," the surveyor replied before returning to the theodolite to attend to the chainman’s needs.
   "What's that?" the man inquired cheerily, interrupting the surveyor’s concentration.
   The surveyor looked up and studied the face of the newcomer. He had an uneasy feeling that he had seen this face somewhere before, but he could not place it. The smile was unchanged on the drawn face and when the man knew he had the surveyor's full attention he nodded towards the peg that he had seen the chainman put in and clarified the gesture by swinging the stick towards it.
   "A corner peg," the surveyor replied.
   "Yeah, I know that, but where does it fit in?"
   The surveyor came from behind the theodolite and approached the peg.
   "It's the corner of this block here," he swung his arm in an arc.
   "No it can't be; that's over there."
   "I think you'll find that it is here," the surveyor replied politely.
   "No it's over there. It's been there ever since I’ve been living here. A surveyor put a peg there just after I bought the place."
   "Which place is that?"
   "I own the block next door here. This boundary was surveyed just after I moved in." He pointed behind him and then looked back at the surveyor. There was something about the knarled and shaking hand. "I forget the surveyor’s name. He's probably dead by now. It was...let me think...probably gettin’ on for thirty years ago now, but he put a peg in over there. I saw it not so long ago."
   "Well I have tied into all the surveys in the area and I have found the corner to be here."
   "No, it's over there," the man concluded with an air of finality.
   The surveyor studied the man's face to gain an insight into his challenge. Was the man serious or was he just seeking amusement from the argument. The grin still hadn't left his face, and this the surveyor found disturbing. This was the last thing he needed at this late stage in the day. All the traversing and locating of old monuments followed by hours of calculations to determine the position of each and every corner of the land just in one day was a massive undertaking and he had almost achieved it. But now this man was attempting to destroy all that. There was always the lingering doubt that maybe he had in fact made a mistake and what the man was saying was correct. The surveyor pushed the thought out of his mind.
   The little dog scurried around the theodolite sniffing at everything and at one point promptly cocked his leg and urinated on one of the wooden legs.
   "What's the next bearing?" the chainman moved behind the theodolite, his hand unclamping the horizontal circle. The cardinal sin of stand up comedians was to let the heckler take control of the microphone. The surveyor momentarily wondered if the same applied to chainmen. Things were getting out of hand. He wanted to pack up and go home; understandable at this time of the evening.
   "Um...just wait a minute," the surveyor stalled to give himself some time to assess this latest development. "Is there a peg there now?" he turned back to the man.
   "No not now, but there was one there."
   "Well where did it go?" The surveyor sensing he was making little headway in the debate let his frustration at being landed in this quandary begin to show.
   "I don't know, but it was there."
   "Will I start packing up?" the chainman interrupted.
   "No, just wait a minute. We'll get this last peg in." The surveyor still hoped to salvage the moment.
   "There's not much point," the man added, "the corners not here." He turned and started heading back down the hill. "Come along Bluey."
   "Didn't we come across him sometime ago?" The surveyor turned to find the chainman standing beside him.
   "There is certainly something familiar about him."
   "The corner’s over there I’m tellin’ yah," the man shouted without looking back. He waved his stick out to his left. The surveyor and chainman stood and watched the figure slowly recede down the hill; the little dog trotting patiently a few steps behind.
   They weren’t sure but they thought they heard faintly in the still air, "I used to see the peg every time I went past on the tractor."

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Chapter 17: Stories, from the Field Book of a Reluctant Surveyor - Rain

   The surveyor and farmer stood together on the grassy knoll and gazed out across the plains that stretched before them.
   "Don't know what I'm gunna do," the farmer broke the silence.
   The surveyor was slightly puzzled by this sudden cryptic remark, and failing to make a connection with anything obvious he debated as to whether or not he should ask. The farmer relieved him of making a decision by finally adding, "It hasn't rained for months."
   The weak, autumn sun sank behind the mountain plateau behind them. The surveyor shivered as the chill from the evening air seeped through his jacket.
   "It must be this greenhouse thing they keep talkin' about," the farmer continued. "It's changin' the weather."
   The surveyor just nodded, trying not to encourage a conversation. He looked down at the barren property below and wondered whether over enthusiasm on the part of the farmer's grandfather with an axe might be contributing to the present problem. He considered that sharing his thoughts may not be in the best interest of a productive communique he might have with the farmer in the future, so he let the moment pass and remained silent. He turned and watched the chainman walking up the track towards them with the target over his shoulder. It wouldn't be long before they would be packed up and sitting in front of a blazing log fire back at the chalet. As he looked back to the view he noticed the first hint of dew appearing on the roof of the car. It was going to be a cold night. The shadow cast by the mountains reached further out across the plains.
   "We usually get about ten inches by this time of the year. This year we'd be lucky to have got two. Shouldn't be hand feedin' the stock this time of the year. Should be enough in the paddocks for 'em. Sheep aren't worth anything. Can't afford to bring feed in for 'em. Can't afford to cart 'em away, either. Gunna have to shoot 'em, I suppose. Gone in for deer, but they keep gettin' out. Don't know what I'm gunna do."
   Some sheep moved, and the dust rose and hung in the still air.
   The chainman reached the car and packed the target and legs away as the shadow from the mountains reached the horizon, and only the very tops of nearby hills still caught the sun's feeble rays. The surveyor shivered again, and with his hands tucked deeply in his jacket pockets, walked across to the car, leaving the farmer with his thoughts.
   "We got everything?"
   "Yep," replied the chainman confidently as he slammed the boot closed, abruptly terminating the surveyor's gaze into the back of the car.
   The surveyor went round to the driver's door marvelling at the seemingly telepathic interaction chainmen had with boots of cars. They could tell from the front seat that all the gear was in the back, although "sets of legs" didn't seem to be encompassed by this supernatural phenomenon as they were known to remain back at the office. The engine started, and with the "turning on of heat and fan" ritual completed, they bounced down the rough track to the waiting log fire and beer at the chalet.

   A week later. A week of nothing but rain...

   The surveyor and chainman splashed up the track in the car and stopped just short of the cyclone gate. They peered out into the gloom, past the rhythmic motion of the wiper blades, and watched the farmer come down towards them on his old tractor. After a few moments the surveyor stepped out into the rain and went up to the gate. He lent on the gate as he waited for the farmer to come to a standstill. A stream of water cascaded off the rim of the farmer's hat as he looked down to take the tractor out of gear with the levers between his legs.
   "Nice drop of rain," the surveyor greeted him cheerfully. The farmer looked up. "Losin' all my bloody lambs," he shouted back angrily. "The cattle are gettin' bogged down by the river. Have to keep pullin' 'em out. The dam wall's just washed away. The barn's leakin', so all the hay's gunna rot, and the deer... well, got no idea where they are..."
   The surveyor returned to the warmth and comfort of the waiting car, slightly taken aback by the unexpected response. He sat and watched the retreating landscape, as the chainman reversed back out to the road.

Chapter 16: Stories, from the Field Book of a Reluctant Surveyor - The Toy

   Finally, the vegetation parted, and the surveyor stepped out into the open. He found himself standing on a slight embankment at the edge of a small clearing, etched out of the thick, west-coast scrub. Just below him, nestled within the natural borders that the edge of the bush provided, was a small timber house, capped with a rust streaked, corrugated iron roof. Overgrown lawn helped to fill in the gaps between an assortment of old vehicle parts and piles of scrap timber and metal that littered the space between the house and the surrounding curtain of vegetation. A further small expanse served as a buffer between the house and the potholed, bitumen road. A picket fence, in search of a coat of paint, leant drunkenly along the edge of the lawn providing a scant barrier between the property and the street. From the fence led a concrete driveway up between the house and the foot of the embankment to a small concrete apron surrounding the rear entrance to the house. A car port leant, tentatively, against the faded, yellow weatherboards.
   The surveyor began to turn back down the line towards the theodolite when a faint, whirring sound caught his attention. He looked back towards the house in an attempt to locate the source. A quick glance around the rear of the house revealed nothing, so he turned his attention down the drive towards the road.
   It was then he noticed a small toy. A scaled down four-wheeled drive model, gleaming red with large, black, rubber tyres. Pointing skywards, from behind a tiny roll-bar, was a disproportionately long aerial with a small orange flag attached at the top, waving wildly in response to the erratic movements the speeding toy was making.
   The surveyor leant against his brush-hook and watched its almost hypnotic motions. The toy darted and weaved crazily up and down the concrete driveway, occasionally careering off onto the neglected lawn where it would bounce to a sudden stop, before gradually crawling its way back onto the concrete where it would race off again at breakneck speed. Whenever it raced out onto the road, it would leap into the air as it passed over the concrete crossover.
   The surveyor, fascinated by the display of supposedly youthful entertainment, glanced around the yard for the orchestrator. Failing to find anyone, the surveyor concentrated instead on the toy and the amusement that it provided. Occasionally the tiny machine would stop and sit like a giant insect awaiting a predator, poised and ready to scurry off. Then it would race off to accomplish another couple of laps.
   One of its erratic orbits took it deeper under the car port, and it was then that the surveyor noticed a little boy standing motionless apart from his hands that were grasping a control box with his thumbs frantically wriggling two levers. The boy was partially concealed by the roof of the car port, but the aggressive actions imposed on the control box indicated that the boy was concentrating hard to keep the speeding machine under control.
   The toy seemed to be an extension of the boy's body and mind, linked by the invisible radio waves. The rigorous movements of the control box's aerial seemed to will the toy round the course.
   Suddenly there was a roar, and the faint whirring coming from the small toy was drowned out by the presence of a large machine that filled the void in the driveway with its metallic bulk, and roared to a standstill just short of the car port. The toy skidded to an abrupt halt as the boy's attention was drawn from his toy and diverted to the new arrival. He dropped the control box onto a bench and appeared from beneath the car port where he stood and watched as the machine sat vibrating violently until it took its last breath and shuddered to a sudden stop.
   Time stood, briefly, still.
   The surveyor continued watching with a certain amount of fascinated anticipation. The boy was motionless, and the four-wheel drive, a dull blue showing, intermittently, through layers of thick mud, remained quiet and still where it had come to rest. Only the portion of windscreen swept by the wipers remained sparkling clean. Suddenly the door swung open, and a man stepped out. A faded blue singlet stretched over his large, fleshy frame and rounded stomach, and was partly tucked into ill-fitting blue jeans, torn above one knee. Dark curly hair reached down to his shoulders and he wore heavy boots. His attire was adorned by a liberal splattering of mud.
   "Wow!" the little boy exclaimed, "What happened?"
   The man walked up to the little boy and rested a plump, hairy arm around his shoulder. He looked back towards his muddied vehicle with admiration.
   "Got 'er bogged," he announced proudly, between aggressive bites on an exhausted piece of gum. "Had ta winch 'er out."
   "Wow!" the boy uttered again in amazed response.
   They stood, for a few moments, as if mesmerised by some wondrous, biblical epic, before turning and walking under the carport and disappearing round the corner of the house.
   The following morning the surveyor and chainman pulled up outside the small, yellow house. The driveway was empty. The only sign of habitation was a thin column of blue smoke rising into the cool, still air. They worked quietly, removing the gear from the rear of the car, and when they were organised the surveyor climbed the slight embankment, beside the house, with the theodolite over his shoulder.
   He paused at the point where he had stood the day before, and looked back at the small house, quiet and calm, in the early morning light. The dense bush, dark and forbidding, closed in like a protective curtain. Behind the house, a lone gum tree rose out of the thick mass of bauera and tea-tree. Scraggy limbs reached up to catch the sun's faint rays and its thin leaves hung wet and glistening. Dew lay heavily on the neglected lawn.
   The surveyor searched the deserted yard and finally found the little red four-wheel drive, poised as if ready to pounce at some unseen prey, on the concrete apron by the back porch. A slight grin appeared on his face before he disappeared down the line.
   The toy was coated in mud.

Chapter 15: Stories, from the Field Book of a Reluctant Surveyor - Ten Mil'

   The surveyor stepped out of the foreman's office into the warm, English sunshine. He paused, to place the recently issued, yellow hard-hat firmly on his head, before walking across to the edge of the excavation.
   He studied the activity taking place before him with great interest. Directly in front of him the foundations and below surface construction were being completed while to his left the steel work had begun to be erected. It was a proud moment for him. This was his first site. His site. The previous surveyor had relinquished his position to travel throughout Europe with his newly acquired English Pounds, so the agency had been in contact to find a replacement. So here he was, only a week after stepping off the plane. It would not be long before he would thoroughly understand the intricacies of the whole site and have it humming smoothly along. They would all come to him with their problems. They would all come to him when they needed help. He would care for the site as a shepherd would care for his flock...
   "Hey, you! Are you the site surveyor?" someone shouted.
   The word "surveyor" jolted the surveyor's mind back to reality. He turned and saw a man looking towards him and waving.
   "Yes, I suppose I am," the surveyor replied proudly.
   "Well ge' over 'ere then, and give us some levels on this 'ere beam."
   His first task. He adjusted the hard-hat on his head and walked confidently across to the waiting group of workers.

   The day drifted, uneventfully, by...

   ...and it wasn't until the surveyor was walking back towards the site offices at the end of the day that the foreman materialised beside him.
   "D'ye reckon ye could ge' a level on a pile fur oos? I' 'as ta be jacked doon ta the right height. Ah'll be needin' i' fur a poor first thing in the mornin'."
   The surveyor stared blankly at the Scotsman. The only word he recognised was "pile". His mind searched, desperately, for a possible reason why a pile would be mentioned, as the foreman stood watching him, waiting for a response. He couldn't think of one, so to break the awkward moment he decided to ask, possibly, the only logical follow up question that would keep him from looking totally incompetent. "Where is it?" he asked calmly.
   "O'er there. Tiny's waitin' with a jack-hammer. Boot remember, i' can be a wee bi' below the specified level, boot i' cannot be over. Ah can make tae ground slab thicker, boot no way can i' be any thinner. Dae' ye oonderstand laddie?"
   "Yep. No worries." The surveyor didn't understand at all. But he had come to realise, during the course of the day, that asking for a repetition only resulted in the instruction being told at greater volume, and certainly not in a way that could be better understood. If anything, the accents only became more unintelligible. So he headed across to the excavated hole the foreman had pointed to and hoped that the problem would become clearer when he arrived. He was slightly disturbed by the foreman's reference to the waiting man as "Tiny". He didn't know many small men called "Tiny".
   His theory was to remain intact. As he reached the hole and peered in, his worst fears were substantiated. Standing astride the jagged end of a concrete pile, jutting from the ground, stood the largest man the surveyor had ever seen, glaring up at him. He was stripped to the waist, and sweat streaked the grey dust that clung to his body and hair. He wore a moustache that turned, menacingly, downwards at the ends, and tattoos, depicting hate and death themes, covered his large arms. A jack hammer hung toy-like from his right hand.
   "'ow much off this then?" the man snarled up from the hole.
   "Hang on a sec', I'll tell you." The surveyor dragged his gaze from the frightening form in the hole and proceeded to set up the level. Luckily he had done a number of these during the day, so he knew what the job entailed. All he had to do was reduce the height of the pile to just below the design level. He couldn't see it being a problem. A staff appeared and was held on top of the pile by an anonymous member of the group of workers that were standing around the perimeter of the hole.
   "About a foot," the surveyor completed his calculations.
   Immediately the jack-hammer came to life, and concrete dust rose up from the hole. Workers, who had finished for the day, began to gather around the hole to watch the big man wrestle with the kicking machine. As suddenly as it had begun, the deafening noise stopped.
   "Is tha' it?" the big man looked up at the surveyor with a pained expression on his face. His breathing was slightly heavier.
   The staff appeared again, as if by magic, and the surveyor checked his calculations.
   "No, not quite. About another inch."
   More noise, more dust, more wrestling, more sweat. The surveyor watched the display in awe. A skull, tattooed on the man's arm, appeared to grin up at him.
   When the hammer finally came to rest the site seemed strangely quiet. Most of the machines had been turned off for the night, and the only sound came from the compressor that was giving life to the hammer.
   The surveyor completed his calculation. Unfortunately, still not quite enough. He looked up to see the big man preparing to leave the hole. He thought he had finished and could probably taste his first beer. Getting him back into the hole would be impossible. He was about to throw the hammer up out of the hole when the surveyor finally blurted out, "Another ten," but his voice faltered at the critical moment.
   The man aborted his throw mid-swing, and the hammer fell to the ground beside him. "What?" he screamed. He turned and glared at the surveyor.
   "Another ten," the surveyor repeated feebly.
   "Ten what?" the big man had the pained look on his face again.
   "Mil'. Ten mil'."
   They stared at one another for what seemed an eternity for the surveyor. As he waited for a reaction he became aware of the gathering crowd of curious workers around the hole. They were looking for something to talk about, later at the pub, over a "pint", and it seemed like they were about to get all the material they needed. The big man's stare was a couple of metres below. A reaction finally came.
   "Ten mil'!" he exclaimed. "That's only that," he measured the air with a thumb and pointer finger.
   The surveyor didn't need to be reminded what ten millimetres looked like. He had known for some time. But he realized that the time was not quite right to be stressing that point and decided that agreement was, probably, the best form of defence.
   "Yeah that's right, but it has to come off."
   "You tryin' to wind me oop?" The big man's voice suddenly became more threatening. "Who's gunna give a sod about ten flamin' mil'?"
   The skull grinned demonically up at him as though enjoying the confrontation immensely.
   The surveyor broke the gaze and looked down at his field book. Should he try and explain why it was so important for the pile to be below the design height. Would it make any difference? They didn't say anything to prepare him for situations like this in his training. Surveying seemed like a noble, gentleman's profession; not one driven by fear, aggression, and in this instance, if diplomacy faltered, possible death. He wanted to jump down into the hole and do it himself, but he would be lucky to lift the jack-hammer, let alone control it when it was turned on. He could only hope for a miracle.
   The miracle, finally, came with the loud, abrasive, staccato sound of the hammer. He looked up, jubilantly, to see concrete dust, again, swirling up around the big man in the hole, as he hammered into the pile with renewed aggression. His mouth was forming words that, much to the relief of the surveyor, could not be heard over the noise. Even the skull appeared to be scowling. But it didn't matter now. The ten mil' was coming off.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Chapter 14: Stories, from the Field Book of a Reluctant Surveyor - The Peg

   "Peg!" the farmer exclaimed. "It's up there." He pointed up the hill.
   The surveyor turned and looked in the direction of the gnarled and shaking hand, then back at the farmer.
   "Is it, you sure?" he added with increasing enthusiasm.
   The farmer had followed the two men, intermittently, all over his property for the last few days. He had tried to understand their seemingly random motions and peculiar actions. But every word of advice uttered by him was greeted with either a disinterested grunt, or a vague, confusing explanation of why he was wrong, after an intense consultation with a wad of paper one of them constantly had in his possession.
   But now he had their attention, the suddenness and intensity of which had taken him by surprise. Not wanting to lose the moment, he continued.
   "Course I'm sure. I can take you right to it. I see it every time I go past on the tractor."
   The farmer started up the hill and the surveyor and chainman followed closely. As they picked their way between the bracken and clumps of blackberries, the surveyor's mind wandered.
   Why had he taken this job on, he wondered? He should have passed it on to someone else. At the time it had looked simple, on paper that was. One day in the field, half a day in the office and then money in the bank. But how things had changed. No marks, no fences and country that reminded him of Nepal. Now, many days and sleepless nights later, and what seemed like a thousand nightmarish trips up a winding, rocky excuse for a road, had left him mentally and physically drained, with a car that had more in common with a wrecking yard than a surveying practice. The profits had long gone out of the job. Now it was a race for survival. If only he could find this peg. Now this tired, old farmer was leading him out of the darkness, into the light, out of the wilderness...
   "Here it is," the farmer stopped abruptly, interrupting the surveyor's thoughts.
   "Where?" the surveyor looked around and saw nothing but blackberries and long grass.
   "It's in here." The farmer started kicking at the blackberries.
   The surveyor watched for a few moments before joining in. The chainman contributed with a few disinterested kicks.
   "That's funny," the farmer said, after a few minutes. "I used to see it all the time. Every time I'd go past on the tractor."
   The surveyor couldn't see how it could possibly be funny. Not finding a peg was never funny. "You sure?" he asked, with rising concern.
   "Well I thought I was sure," replied the farmer.
   "When did you actually last see it?" The surveyor was starting to sense that the moment was not going to be as he had thought, and tried to contain his growing frustration.
   "Well...let me think. It would have to be a good twenty years ago now, I suppose."
   A wave of hopelessness washed over the surveyor. "Are you sure it was a peg?" he asked desperately, "a white, square peg, with a clout in the top?"
   "A what in the top?"
   "A...a nail or something."
   The farmer looked down at the shape the surveyor was forming with his pointer fingers and thumbs, then back up, slightly confused.
   "Well not really. It was more like a stake. My Father...bushfires..."
   The surveyor wasn't listening anymore. He had drifted off into his own thoughts. The magic spell was broken. The survey was to remain unsolved. There was to be no peg.
   He turned slowly, and headed back down the hill to the theodolite and what was left of the car. The farmer followed, concerned over what he had said to cause such a sudden loss of interest. The chainman, taking up the rear, tried to decide between "chips" or "a hamburger with the lot" for lunch. He was not concerned unduly, he still had thirty-five minutes to decide.