doug, the hopperman
Doug spends twelve hours a day underneath the hopper bagging meatmeal.
He fastens an empty bag to the shute mouth, opens the sliding trap and fills it, shuts the trap and wrestles the bag away, sows the mouth shut with raw twine and stacks the finished product upright for someone else to take away. Sometimes days away, after the rats have plundered their way through the pile and the raw stinking spill overcomes all the economics of inventory.
He doesn’t speak readily, doesn’t Doug, and at morning smoko, and lunch, and at afternoon smoko he sits on a bench in a small blue painted shed just outside the cooker-room and eats his white bread and meat and snafs at the blowflies that come too close to his tea and he drops them into a large jamjar that sits on the table there. It’s almost half full with the dried husks and dust of hundreds of insects.
Like Mohammed Ali, he plucks them from the air.
Sometimes a new starter will sit across the table from Doug and share a break, and also share his deliberate bleakness of intellect, for this old man revels in his angry solitude.
He is a big old man with a mourner’s languid face, hollow cheeked with eyes almost hidden beneath thick black brows, his hair is greasy with meal dust, and his large arms are heavily roped with sinew vein and muscle, his hands are also outsized, the fingers blunted and thick, the nails untended and split. The time-hardened tools of his trade.
Doug stands at well over six foot, is lithe and mobile and he carries only bone and muscle on his skeletal frame. He is friendless in the town and drinks alone at the Pier every other night, and like the rest of us in the meat meal-room , he stinks to the heavens of his trade.
Yet he will smile from time to time when he allows a young fellow from out of town to buy him a beer and stand for a chat, one way though it be for Doug’s conversation is always guarded and spare – Though sometimes he nods in a distant understanding when the conversation turns to surfing, as if some vestigial memory of younger days stirs there.
A drunken Sydney youth accosted Doug one Saturday night, walked up beside him at the bar late to order a round for the table of his friends and while waiting on his drinks he complained loudly to the room about the slaughterhouse stink coming from the old man at his side, and then he turned to Doug and abused him, said he was a corpse occupying a seat that a live man should be using.
They all laughed, his friends, and at the moment the youth turned away from the bar with his load of drinks Doug stood up and backhanded him twice to the wall, all splintering glass now, and spilt beer and dumbfounded shock at the rapid and heavy blows, and then, as quiet as a trained dog, Doug followed him over there to where he lay stunned and bleeding and stood over him so patient, so blank-eyed, waiting on him to rise.
His iron- boned hands all at ease, just there brushing the air above the boy’s face, and the bar quietly retired from the commotion.
Just another lesson.
The publican came out from behind the bar and quietly shepherded Doug away, and he spoke to him, and as the old man resumed his seat at the bar the youths abandoned the hotel, and the town.
A pleasing update of one of my favorite stories: ‘The Terrible Old Man,’ by Lovecraft.