‘Work, for the employer—be they public body or private enterprise—is the sum total of those human means by which an economically, socially or, indeed, militarily desirable outcome may be attained on relatively less exacting terms—’ said Sir William Hudson, confirming the worst fears of his audience ‘—that is, fiscally, or commercially speaking.’
While it went unmarked by many of the open-collared men who were then seated at their rows of folding chairs before him, Sir William here placed deliberate, albeit subtle emphasis on the term militarily. Although the colossal Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme was then into its eighth year of construction, the constitutional soundness of the undertaking—in view of the fraught interplay of ss. 51(vi) and 100 of that hallowed framing enactment—was, even at such a juncture, somewhat less than certain. While the Premiers of both New South Wales and Victoria had all but signed on the dotted line so far as the division of power and water to be harnessed by the Scheme was concerned, more than one trade union roughneck had sought to exploit the underlying shakiness of the Scheme at the negotiating table, and the voice of Riverine skepticism had long been dogged and strong. Now, fresh rumblings were to be heard from Adelaide. The official line Sir William and staff had constantly to redraw, then, was that the key or capstone outcomes sought to be achieved by the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority in the construction of the Scheme that afforded it both budget and ambit pertained, fundamentally, to questions of Australia’s national defence. That pale Sir William’s bony features and the bruised, red-rimmed sockets of his eyes led many in the trades to speak of him in terms of an Exterminating Angel only contributed to the collective sense—most keenly felt in Canberra—that the Commissioner’s was a fitting face to put to the fiction.
‘Though work is, of course, a vitally necessary input in this equation,’ Sir William went on, affecting the airless tone of one who has made a career of concreting and tunnels, ‘it is far from sufficient in an undertaking so vast as ours.’
Of the forty or so men who had gathered in the winded hilltop hall to hear their Commissioner speak, most were representative of the legion foremen and supervising engineers then contracted to the Scheme. Also among the crowd, though—and slumped conspicuously over the bald timbers of his chair like a posed cadaver—was junior civil engineer Orson Mawson. Thick-limbed yet pigeon-chested, pale for all his frequent sunburns, and embellished about the jawline with a reddish rash of acne that belied his twenty-eight years, Orson was a flesh-and-blood study in the singular tensions of work upon the Snowy Mountains Scheme. It was Orson’s sole responsibility in the Mountains to monitor the surface thickness, passableness and general condition of countless miles of unpaved corkscrew tracks and access roads. Wending their way down hillside and gulch toward a dozen or more quarries, earth-rock dams and machine halls, Orson’s roads provided carriageway to Leyland trucks, Tournapulls, Scammell dumpers and all manner of heavy diesel, servicing worksites strung out across the Great Dividing Range like dismal lanterns suspended from a length of insulated copper cabling. Though the role was, intellectually, neither exacting nor stimulating, the roads Orson superintended were paved demonstrably in blood and broken bone. Inordinately steep, slippery in the cold and wet, and prone year-round to crumbling and degradation across their span, the Mountain roads had so far exacted a heavy toll in lost lives and equipment. Orson’s engagement, then, was inordinately, paradoxically, wearing on his nerves. He was attended in his labours by so many ghosts—each clad in a dusty rib-knit jersey and a hardhat bearing the SMA’s angular livery. And while the locations to which his responsibilities took him were both varied and scenic—from alpine meadows awash with paper daisy and sarsaparilla, to towering granite fells beneath which sheltered enclaves of fragrant, dwarfish snowgums—this small mercy was offset by the consubstantial boredom and extreme stress of Orson’s overarching responsibility. Orson could not imagine any other task in the world taking up so much of his time and nervous energy while occupying him so little. He had been directed to attend this morning’s unveiling of the Commissioner’s amended SMHEA Standing Orders on Work Practices and Safety in place of his supervising engineer, Mr. Bern ‘Calico’ Trent BSc.
‘Because, for the worker,’ Sir William expounded, ‘the notion of work inheres in a wholly different calculus.’
As the middlemen of the Snowy Scheme sat stoically to attention, the dry must of the hall approached a cold and vacant peak. Above the polished boards of the stage, a broad lancet window framed Sir William’s head and shoulders in the soiled-linen-grey of the day. Dully glowing through the streaky glass, the clouds cast their murky light over the room. Sago snowflakes like tiny eggs began to fall beyond the panes.
‘Work, for the worker,’ Sir William went on, ‘finds its truest expression in a two-pronged effort that is wholly negative in tenor.’
Orson pressed a thumb and forefinger into his eyelids and savoured a passing measure of relief from his headache. Up on the stage, the Commissioner made a short, anticipatory pause. Swaying lazily at the outer limits of his person like a halo, pale strands of his hair sought to escape the dome of his scalp. It was uncharacteristic of Sir William that he should miss even the smallest tranche of fringe with the Brylcreem—retardant of both water and wind—that was so emblematic of his person. Hail began to hammer the corrugated iron roof of the hall, filling the room with densest drumming. The mood of the listeners shifted as their concentration broke off with the befuddling noise. While the unwavering monotone of his delivery did not permit the modulation of timbre or volume, by the set of his jaw and a subtle narrowing of the lips the Commissioner bade his audience be still.
‘The individual worker tries, on the one hand, to evade rebuke or sanction for a task poorly or tardily performed, and, on the other, to avoid injuring himself, person, property, or any combination thereof.’
‘Negligence,’ growled a senior supervising engineer from the front row. Desert-bronzed and stunted trunk-and-branch like ancient mesquite, the speaker was the pockmarked representative of American joint enterprise Kaiser-Walsh-Perini-Raymond. The Kaiser consortium had, the May prior, won contracts for itself to undertake construction of the enormous earthen Eucumbene dam and its adjoining Tumut Tunnel.
‘Negligence,’ Sir William agreed. He paused a moment, adopting an air of studied uncertainty. It was the Commissioner’s personal crux that he was unable to leave even the slightest conceptual thread-end trailing loose, however trivial it might have been in context—even where he agreed in broad, practical terms with what had been said.
‘Although,’ the Commissioner added, ‘we ought note that the two broad species of negligence just described occupy, at their respective extremes, the unopposed poles of a broad spectrum of failure.’
By this digression, Sir William burned off the last of his audience’s patience with the lecture. Orson squirmed in his seat. He had broken off a protracted, reeling bender in the small hours of the morning, barely rousing himself in time to present—shaved and showered—for the day’s work. The beer was still backed up to a familiar level just behind his eyes. No sooner had Orson arrived in the SMA offices that morning than he had been turned out again in a storm of barrel curls and hurried explanation. Smelling soothingly of milk-soap, Lorna had performed the small kindness of winding Orson’s wool scarf a little tighter about his throat, prompting a passing chainman of not uncommon coarseness to remark:
‘Someone’ll be greasin’ ‘is nail come Fridy!’
Ignoring this, Lorna had ushered Orson wordlessly to the door and pointed him up the hill toward the hall.
Lorna Boone had served as a general secretary in the offices of the Snowy Mountains Authority since her arrival in Cooma in March 1953. Lorna’s husband, Malcolm, had been killed in the course of a drugstore robbery in Colorado while he was on secondment to the US Board of Reclamation in Denver. Lorna had been required to countersign Malcolm’s contract with the SMA upon the commencement of his employment with the Authority, compounding with their mutual employer not to follow her husband abroad, so as to ensure that his additional technical training might be completed without undue distraction or interruption. As it turned out, Malcolm had caught a bullet in the oesophagus less than a month before he was due to return to the Snowy Mountains, thereby relieving him of all contractual obligations to the Authority. Not so Lorna, who was advised by the SMA’s in-house counsel that her travelling to Colorado to oversee the repatriation of her husband’s body to Australia ran contrary to the contract she had signed.
In the church hall, the skin of Orson’s face and neck swiftly forgot the chill, smacking kiss of the bracing air outside. In a dim corner of the hall, an oil heater creaked its provocation and burned on and on intolerably.
‘To the avoidance of negligence of any kind, we must add another, arguably more pressing effort on the part of the worker,’ Sir William continued. ‘For the worker, work carries with it always the imperative of self-preservation. The worker strives to ensure that, should his negligence come to the attention of a superior, his own culpability may be concealed—whether by a sophisticated device or plot or else by simple obfuscation—or that it may otherwise be denied, displaced, or sheeted home, so to speak, to a workmate. To this end, the worker will devote the greater part of his every working day.’
High above the snowline, the tunnellers worked on heedless of the Commissioner’s speech. A half-flayed lamprey in the bedrock deep, a mighty drill jumbo slowly worked its way deep into a plug of compressed granite. Sympathetic parts rotated and counter-rotated, and in the space between them the heart of a mountain was unmade. Tailing the drill, the tunnel crew flattered its machine with a uniform of dirty green oilskins. Holes bored, the machine retreated backward along the tracks of the tunnel floor. Powder monkeys emerged from the shadows with their charges, pressing gelignite deep into the rock-face and tamping it down firmly with rods of steel. A huge blast rocked the valley, before a mucker made its appearance and scooped the shattered rock from the tunnel.
Orson’s spine thrummed with a sensation of pressure that fell somewhere short of pain. The discomfort would, he knew, be relieved only by a jolt of sharp, cracking torsion—and then only briefly. He was weighed down with a familiar, shapeless drinker’s shame. As though in arch mockery of Orson’s suffering, the Commissioner summoned a joke.
‘It is a strange paradox in the sphere of labour relations, then, that so much should be routinely accomplished by work despite the involvement of the individual worker.’
From the audience came the reedy, pattering laughter of a roomful of engineers. Sudden shadows seemed to fill the bony hollows of the Commissioner’s face, though the clouds above had stormed themselves ragged and were already beginning to disperse. Sir William wore for a moment the expression of one who has just recalled, unbidden, his life’s defining grievance.
‘As to the eventual outcome of his work, ’ Sir William continued, ‘being that which the employer seeks, and the reason for which the work is purchased in the first place: provided it is acceptable to the employer, by however slim a margin, it is as tailwater to the turbine so far as the worker is concerned. The greater part of any labour is finding the wherewithal to attempt it, the disaffected worker consoles himself; thinks, simply seeing a job through to the end is a worthy achievement in itself.’
Even to Orson Mawson, who rarely gave a wet shit about anything that was said in the course of the working day, the Commissioner’s pronouncements rang with unkindness—being delivered, as they were, in a tone of detachment that might, issuing from another speaker, have come off as baldly sneering. Because, for the worker, Orson knew, the condition of employment—an exploitative arrangement to begin with, to be sure, since the value of the work performed needs must exceed the worker’s compensation for it—necessarily demands the acceptance of a state of some precariousness. In return for the efforts Sir William sought now to characterise, insultingly, as the slimmest, the barest of endeavours, the worker is compelled to offer up his or her hope and faith to market, union, wig and gown; to look constantly to mate and master for deliverance from industrial accident and illness, and to trust week-on-week that his or her manila ghost will be remembered to a company pay clerk two Thursdays in the month.
‘What is necessary, then, for the realisation of the overarching goal of the Snowy Mountains Authority,’ Sir William said, at last, ‘and to ensure not only the success of the Scheme it administers, but its redounding triumph, is the close and careful supervision of the thousands of workers now contracted to the task of realising it. These men must be made to rise above the low standards they have set for themselves, and to triumph over their predisposition to think only in terms of self-preservation. If this Authority is to keep the workers of the Scheme to task, we must look to the foreman, and to the engineer. Only by your oversight and intercession can the individual workman be made to deliver his projects on or ahead of time, and to the highest standard of completion. His native qualities alone will not permit it.’
The Commissioner cleared his throat before continuing.
‘To that end, you will find it highlighted in the most recent Standing Orders issued by my office that lateness, loafing, idle chatter, the downing of tools before the appointed time, prolongation of convenience breaks beyond the briefest of limits, and failure to complete an assigned task by a deadline clearly communicated are, and shall remain—upon the provision of prior verbal warning—causes sufficient to ground summary dismissal.’
Orson regarded the short-cropped hair that bristled from the skin at the base of the Kaiser man’s neck. It seemed to ripple as the American’s chin rose and fell from his breast in nodded approval.
‘You will note, more particularly,’ Sir William added, ‘that, as of today, Authority workmen are no longer permitted to build campfires and to boil their billies during allotted breaks. They are not stockmen or boundary riders. To ensure that all breaks are kept to time, labourers are to adopt instead the most sensible practice introduced to us by our trans-Pacific contractors and to bring with them a Thermos flask each morning containing their day’s tea or coffee. Thank you, gentlemen.’
At this, Sir William stepped down from the stage. His audience rose to meet him. The Commissioner pressed hands with several among the senior staff in the frontmost rows—along with a bespectacled stranger who sported a long dun coat and who could, therefore, be nothing other than an agent of ASIO sent southward after the more restive and militant trades union organisers of the Mountains—and strode from the hall to meet his car. Through the window above the stage, Orson spied the white, soupy clouds of another storm front banking on the horizon. Where grey or black in the thunderhead usually heralded approaching rain or hail, densest white telegraphed heavy snowfall. For all it had kept him in food and beer and shelter these past five winters, his work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme had fairly spoiled the snow for Orson Mawson. Snow: the great, powdered silence. The habits it inspired in the roughhewn men of the range were abject beyond bearing.
‘The water’s bloody freezing!’ Orson had complained during his first overnight stay at the Island Bend works camp, as he returned from the cement slab topped with weatherboard partitions that served as an amenities block.
‘My oath!’ Noel—a diesel plant operator—had agreed.
‘How do you blokes bloody stand it?’
‘Trick is, you’ve gotta save up a big piss before you go for your tub—so that you’re really boilin’ for a leak.’
‘Why’d you want to do that? Distract you from the cold or somethin’?’
‘What you want to do,’ Noel had continued, ‘when you first jump under the water, is to start pissin’ all over your legs.’
‘Why in Christ’s name would I piss on myself?’
‘The warmth o’ the piss, mate—tricks your brain into thinkin’ you’re warm all over. Take my word for it. It’s the best you’re gonna do up here.’
Outside the hall, tweedy Michael Meads, senior surveyor, stood and smoked a cigarette by the vestry door.
‘I decided to take advantage of the motor-pool this morning—hop in,’ he offered as Orson emerged, squinting, into the light. ‘It’s a filthy day.’
‘Thank you, but I’ll walk back to headquarters via the Post Office,’ Orson replied.
Among the ranks of the SMA’s salaried professionals, to visit the Post Office on a weekday was convenient and universally understood shorthand for necking an illicit schooner at the Railway Tavern. While it was common enough for the Authority’s hard-drinking engineers to leave their offices at ten-to-five in the evening on the pretext of “catching the outgoing mail”, it was almost unheard of for any but Orson Mawson to darken the Post Office doors before midday on a Thursday.
‘You’ve taken the Commissioner’s words to heart, then,’ Meads said.
‘Something to knock the dust off.’ Orson conceded, and winced against the glare of the snowclouds as they marshaled overhead.
‘Indeed. If I didn’t already know you for a local drunk, I’d have to ask myself what Soviet horrors you’d fled back home so as to wind up here in such a buck-eyed state.’
Idiom tending toward economy, a shift in vernacular recommended itself to Orson Mawson.
‘Don’t go casting stones at me, you guilty Mick,’ he sniped.
‘You Proddies are outnumbered here three-to-one, Orse—we’re extending churches all over the place just to fit our congregations in the door.’
‘Thankfully they’ll be flushing out one of your little rats’ nests down at St Columkille’s in the valley soon enough.’
A casualty of the Scheme’s advances, the scenic township of Jindabyne was soon to be swallowed up by the damming of the Snowy River there. A similar fate awaited the crossroads hamlet of Adaminaby upon the damming of the Eucumbene by the relentless industry of the Kaiser enterprise.
‘We rats always seem to find ourselves a raft,’ Meads observed, serenely.
‘Someone ought to have a word with bloody Athol Townley,’ Orson redounded.
‘It was your Mr. Calwell got ’em out here in the first place.’
‘I wish you bastards’d piss off out of it, just the same. Last thing we need is a boatload more lackeys for the DLP.’
‘I fancy I just caught a whiff of last night’s whiskey on your breath.’
‘It’s probably sulphur you smell, Meads. Best say a rosary, to be sure.’
Orson’s grin showed up the faint yellow of his worn incisors through the parting of his lips. His teeth came up unusually dirty in the crisp light given out by the clouds.
‘In your case I should think the scent of molten asphalt is more likely,’ offered Meads with a smirk.
‘Piss off! Papist goon.’
‘What is it you’re actually doing these days, anyway, Orse?’
‘Patching potholes, mainly.’
‘Personally?’ Meads sniggered. ‘The bulge above your belt would suggest otherwise. In any case, I’d best be getting back,’ he said, and swung down into the driver’s seat of a company car. ‘I’ll see you back at the coalface.’
‘’Corse, occasionally I’ll order up a truckload of gravel, too,’ Orson said, in parting. ‘If I can be bothered with the paperwork.’
Orson turned and set off down the hill without a backward glance. He leaned into the heels of his boots so as to arrest the force of inertia that sought to pull him into a run. His plan—barely embryonic for the duration of the Commissioner’s speech but now fully formed—was at once simple and inelegant: he would poke his head in at the Alpine Hotel for a quick hair-of-the-dog, lingering just long enough to scorch his corduroy trousers in front of the open fire. That accomplished, he would call in at Conti’s Delicatessen to buy a pound of pork sausages wrapped in brown paper and tied with a loop of jute twine. Provided no one in the office sought a closer inspection, he could pass the parcel off as a package just collected from the Post Office.
Orson balled the chilled fingers of each hand at bottom of his trouser pockets. The hailstorm and the lazy breeze that followed in its wake had cleared away the morning’s fog. In its place, a blanket of acrid smoke now carpeted the township in its frosty valley redoubt. Orson took a cigarette and match from an inside jacket pocket and struck a light. Tobacco and match masked the awful smell of woodsmoke attendant on the season. In the smoke of the Mountains, Orson had long detected a singular unpleasantness. The fumes that hung on the rare mountain air above the region’s towns, from Cooma to Cabramurra, were redolent of an altogether different species of fuel than the Sydney blackbutt, stringybark, and turpentine to which Orson was better accustomed. The Agas and pot-bellied stoves of the Snowies glowed red with the heat of combusting candlebark, peppermint and snowgum from Easter to October. The base notes of these smokes reeked to Orson more of winter than of warmth. Chord and concert, they added up to an intolerable perfume. Smoke of any kind, though, made for a change from the engineer’s perfumery with which he was most unhappily acquainted, which emphasised diesel, hot bitumen freshly poured, and structural cement going off in the sun or kept from freezing by vats of burning oil. In the pubs, at least, the smoke was a familiar thing.
Orson carried on down the hill. As the last of the men from the hall passed him in an SMA Holden and swung away to the north, he felt a sudden, palpable drop in temperature. The air was filled for a moment with a still, serene calm. From over Orson’s shoulder came the snow. It began to fall in heavy, fat flakes. The weather argued against beer; it would have to be a whiskey—swiftly poured, and finished at a gulp at the bar.
Rarely do the mountainous tranches of Southeastern New South Wales produce a square edge—since the every bent of alpine precipitate and flow is toward the curve and sweeping bend. Even the Monaro’s famous boulders, though eked by wind and rain from a vast volcanic floe of indeterminate shape—a batholith without preference as to its ultimate weathered form or forms—bear out the native geometric prejudice of the local hydrosphere with their onionskin formations. The shape of a man being, at root, a bone-scaffolded containment of water, the high country exerted upon the architects of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme a relentlessly rounded outlook. The engineer, confronted with the business of tunneling and damming, could dream only in terms of the annulus, the rounded bore, and the inward curving earth-rock wall. After all: above the snowline, the very trees themselves refused to stand at an angle of ninety degrees upright. Nothing could be so brutal here as a square. So it was perhaps to be expected that Orson Mawson should be drawn to nothing so much as a bottle and a tumbler.
By the time Orson had imbibed his first Scotch of the day—and this followed closely by his second, and then a nip of slivovitz stood for him at the bar by an injured Czech mechanic then recuperating in the Alpine—the snow was already beginning to settle on the bitumen of Sharpe Street. A thin carpet lay light as a wisp upon the verge. While the snowcover was, as yet, little more substantial than a light thickness of gauze, the soupy clouds above promised reinforcement enough crush every blade of grass into the frozen earth.
Orson arrived, by and by, at Conti’s. Modestly impaired by the spirits that were by then beginning to leech into his system, he pulled a little too vigorously at the heavy door to the delicatessen before plunging into the press of bodies inside. Though Conti’s offered all manner of smallgoods for sale—hung salamis, rich pink hams, and cured joints; bratwurst, liverwurst, paté, kranski, too—the ladies queued up before the counter clamoured only to purchase mutton chops. To the outside visitor, it must have seemed that the Snowy Scheme’s construction rode on the sheep’s back every bit as much as the rest of the country. The impression was misleading. While overseeing works in the field, Orson had often seen the Italians and Balts and Germans of the road gangs to sit down to lunch, the ravenous men tearing into packed lunches of deli-meat and gherkins and their dense, strong-smelling bread. The bracing, sometimes astringent odours of ingredients such as these better suited the conditions and tasks faced by the labourers of the Mountains than the sterile scent of mutton greying under glass. It was this baser odour, Orson realised, that now spoiled the close, savoury atmosphere of the deli. Which is not to say that Orson had ever declined a plate of chops when offered—only that the grog-sick stomach can only handle so much, and most often craves only the richest, saltiest compensation. Orson placed his order and watched as the butcher scooped his sausages from a pinkish mound of links with a suitably meaty hand. The man handed Orson a brown paper parcel and took payment without uttering a word.
Out on the street, the sheeting snow had settled into a steady falling pattern. From the coffee shop two doors down came the sour, appetising scent of espresso. Escaping the café premises from beneath a heavy glass door, the still-warm aroma leeched out onto the footpath and buttonholed the ailing engineer as he pressed the malleable parcel of sausages against his ribcage. For Orson, the smell appealed today most particularly to his drinker’s faith in the curative properties of hot coffee.
‘Good morning!’ called the aproned proprietor from behind the countertop as Orson slouched into the café. The hospitaller, a stout little man, stood sentinel behind his gleaming, bulbous espresso machine—a brassy apparatus that was topped with the figurine of a proud and leering eagle. The recent heraldic connotations of the ornament struck an ironic note.
‘You want coffee, or you just keep out the snow?’ he asked.
‘Coffee, please,’ Orson said, too quickly.
‘You can use it. And the milk? Sugar?’
‘Black, thank you.’
‘You worry about the cold!’ the café owner chuckled, handing Orson a tiny, steaming bonewhite cup. ‘I have something will help you.’
At this, he reached beneath the counter and produced a bottle of amaretto and a tiny glass with a looped wire handle. The smiling proprietor poured Orson a nip of the sweet almond liquor and rapped a knuckle on the counter in satisfaction. Orson accepted the token with gratitude, emptied the spirit into the remainder of his coffee, and hurriedly swallowed the bracing solution.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘Good morning!’ the café man laughed, as Orson replaced his empty glass on the well-scrubbed bench. Orson luxuriated in the warmth that flooded his body, and drew the wool scarf tightly about the point of his jaw with measured slowness before setting out for the office once again.
Outside, the snow had buried the road. A net curtain of fat, slow-falling flakes hung suspended between Orson and the world. Gentle licks of breeze set it rippling and twisting, scooping flurries up from the street and coiling them into loose spirals. Orson set off walking. He was buoyed by the spirits in his stomach just enough to walk the straightest line for work in as straight a fashion as he could manage. The void-like cold of the day having kept many at home, there were few vehicles on the road. Orson stepped down from the kerb so as to shuffle along on the snow-covered asphalt. Off to the right, where street and brickwork gave way to sheep paddocks, the bald hills of the Monaro were liberally carpeted with snow. They seemed to blend into the sky above them to form a blank, white continuity. A different shade of pale altogether, the rendered granite facade of Coffey’s Hotel emerged, inevitably, from the surrounding flurries as a custard-coloured beacon.
Stepping inside the pub, Orson spied a familiar face by the flickering wood fire. Espen, a maintenance mechanic from the Polo Flat depot, sat at a schooner with yesterday’s Canberra Times spread upon the table before him. As he approached the bar, Orson felt a small though savage thrill of annoyance at finding the indolent Norwegian languishing there, instead of skinning his knuckles in the efficient pursuit of the Authority’s goals. Orson laid his parcel of sausages on the countertop and rapped at the timber of the bar.
‘Orrite, mate?’ the barman asked, wiping a shaky hand on the dirty fabric of his dungarees.
‘A stout, please’ Orson said.
‘You want a rum to keep that company?’ the barman asked as he drew off a pint of chocolaty draught. Orson nodded his affirmation, and made a show of adjusting the loops of twine that held his parcel together, testing the knot, before swatting at the brown paper wrapping so as to dislodge the accreted snowflakes he fancied it had collected—only to find that these had all melted the moment he stepped into the pub. The paper was damp and clammy to the touch. Orson retrieved a packet of Craven As from the neck of his wool jumper and sparked a light.
‘And two rum,’ Espen said to the barman, sidling up to the bar and holding aloft a pair of splayed fingers in a drinker’s pantomime of urging peace. Orson noticed the angry, puckered ridge of a sutured gash running down the length of the mechanic’s index finger and over the corresponding first knuckle.
‘Been in the wars, mate?’ he asked. The choice of phrase was not unproblematic.
‘Machine accident—nothing,’ Espen said, and laid a small handful of coins on the countertop. The ruddy mechanic pinched the rim of a glass between the thumb and forefinger of his uninjured hand and tossed the contents down.
‘Cheers!’ Espen said with a broad grin, and swiftly downed the second measure. Orson took a deep pull at his stout and sipped from the rum accompanying it with closed eyes as Espen smiled at him expectantly.
Finishing his drinks hurriedly lest the warm goodwill they imparted draw him into accepting an offering from the injured Norwegian, Orson tucked the parcel of sausages under his arm and stepped out into the cold once more. He stumbled along the verge until he rounded a corner and left the bounds of Cooma behind him. All was white.
A building of uncommon ugliness in pale pink render, soup-brown brick and terracotta tiles held out for the inspection of all comers to Cooma upon the crest of a low rise on the outskirts of town, the boxy office block of the SMA headquarters stood with accusatory severity behind a screen of falling snow. As he approached the building, trailing up the steepish concrete driveway and swinging a hand made raw with cold, Orson shifted now and then into a stilted, balletic gait, stepping now with a flat foot, now on his toes, spelling out his name in the snow with alternate groupings of coded dot and dash. It was a cold comfort in an otherwise miserable walk. Reaching the building at last, he pulled open the chrome-handled door and stepped into the foyer, braying and stamping as he met with the enveloping warmth inside. Marching on the spot, he dislodged the snow from his boots, and nodded a sodden greeting to young Martin Bunt, who was then exiting the building.
Martin Bunt BSc. was a junior technician seconded to the Authority’s Scientific Services Lab. It was his job to construct scale topographical maps and dioramas replicating the terrain in which major Authority constructions were to be undertaken, and to test the weight of water against tiny replicas of dams, surge tanks, and spillways. Always punctual and diligent to a fault, Martin was a model employee.
As Martin sidled out into the bitter afternoon, Lorna emerged from the typing pool—a wood-panelled haven secreted in the close warmth of the building’s rearmost rooms—coughed, and said, ominously:
‘Mr. Trent would like to see you.’
Calico Trent regarded Mawson in unimpressed silence from the creaking embrace of his long-suffering plush chair. His expression suggested a man who had been asked to pose for a photograph by someone he both distrusted and disliked. Trent, whose build hovered somewhere between thickset and morbid, was seated at his paper-strewn desk with a well-sucked cigarette burning between two fingers of his left hand and a pair of thick-rimmed tortoiseshell spectacles pinched between the thumb and forefinger of his right. He wore, as ever, a well-cut grey serge suit made soft by wear, a salt-white cotton shirt, and a pale yellow silk tie. The nicks and scabs that pocked the dangling, pouchy flap of skin at his throat spoke to a slovenly shaving hand—this being Trent’s only patent untidiness.
‘We expected you back in the office two hours ago,’ he said.
‘’M sorry, Mr. Trent,’ Mawson spoke, pausing to inhale as deeply as was seemly. ‘I called inter th’Post Office on my way back ter ‘eadquarters, ter collect a parcel I bin ‘specting, on’y I got caught in th’snowstorm, so I was delayed.’
‘You took shelter in Sharp Street, then?’ queried Trent.
‘I did, sir—in th’coffee ‘ouse on Sharp Street.’
‘What was the thrust of the commissioner’s speech this morning?’
‘The boys are not ter boil their billies durin’ smoko any more, sir.’
‘And your parcel?’
‘Pardon me, sir?’
‘Your parcel was not damaged in the snowstorm, I hope?’
‘I b’lieve it’s weathered it orright, Mr. Trent, thank you.’
At this, however, the soggy paper that parceled Orson’s sausages split at last, rent open, and gave way, causing its meaty contents to spill upon the floor at the unhappy junior engineer’s feet.