why I hated Henry..........

It was’nt a particulary sad funeral, just a necessary one.
Personally I Ioathed the man but went anyway just to confirm he was going in the ground. At the age of eighty four he had growled, abused and belittled his last employee.I think many had come with the same sentiments.
What I knew of this man was really in two contexts, ie. family friend and also as an employer. He was a good friend of my paternal Great Uncles (both batchelors) and bobbed up in family stories (more like myths and legends). They were all huntin-shootin-fishin types atypical country folk of the 30’s , 40’s and 50’s. All hard drinkers when they could afford it, just larrikans of the times identified as ’ pre-automobile ‘. Strange how they hedged time that way. Probably denotes the massive impact the automobile had on the rural experience.
Fishing tales aplenty describe reeling mullet in like a " string of sausages " or following a mulloway by rowing a boat for two miles in two directions, then having to tie it to the bow sprit because it was to big to get in the boat. All this glorious storytelling padded out my primary school years at family gatherings.
My old uncles died away in the the late 70’s, emphysemia and cirrosis of the liver put claim to them. They never married. It was always a mystery to me. Both were gregarious, well known men but no family history records a relationship with women in their lives. One said one day that, " the war upset things too much " . A cryptic comment but one often heard from that generation in particular. It is still whispered at family gatherings, " they were probably gay ", but one needs to be careful with such things. Always a danger slapping a modern day context on earlier times. Maybe they were, maybe they were’nt ? It does not matter now anyway , but I digress.
Henry was the sole survivor of the trio and today was his day.

The second context of my contact with this man was starting work for him in the 80’s. In his late sixties then, he doggedly retained his concrete business working each day as usual. Although his son did a lot of the pricing and paperwork, Henry retained the reigns as the principal force in the business. He had a tough reputation of driving his men hard, thumbing his nose at unionism and workplace law. He had an overiding suspicion of machinery. He routinely had his men barrowing sand into jobs and digging trenches by hand. Very labour intensive when Bobcats and the like would have done the job quicker. He was an obstinate man to put it mildly.
His main trick was starting you onsite at 7.00am, disappearing at 9.30am to ostensibly ’ quote a job ’, back at 11.45 am to keep you working till 12.00 for lunch . Restart at 12.31 and stay til 1.30pm, disappear to do something and return at 4.15pm to work you right to the wire at 4.30pm. Henry was some piece of work allright. His suspicion of anything mechanical and his ever present drive of the labour quotient was nasty. Most hated him, loathed him in fact.

The late 80’s and early 90’s brought recession to country Victoria and work was hard to find. Even Henry at fifty years in the game was finding it hard to win jobs. We often found ourselves leaving home at 4.30am to be on the job at 7.00am and returning after 8.00pm dead tired and half pissed (distances were measured in long-necks in those days). It was just a job and I still do not know how I survived it. I had two kids under six years old and a sick wife that could not work. I kept my head down and done what was asked of me. Callouses upon callouses and sunburnt backs were the order of the day. The camraderie was a positive thing at least. The tough times drove us into a tight knit bunch, not to be mucked with in some obscure country pub miles from anywhere. Henry drove us hard but at least we were paid weekly, not like a lot of others. Rumours abounded that Henry had second mortgaged his home to keep the business going. We did not buy into this crap. We kept turning up because he kept paying us. That was the deal.

The early nineties slipped away and gradually times brightened. Henry looked older every week. Some said he had lung cancer, some said he had it in the spine. We didnt listen to the rumours, we worked ourselves into the ground and gratefully accepted our pay. The day Henry bought his own Bobcat was a momentous occasion. With no warning, a low loader appeared with with a shiny new machine chained on top. We looked across the mountain of sand and smirked at one another. The old bastard had finally relented. From that point on the barrows were only used to place concrete. Henry worked us even harder now, claimimg we were only ’ pussies ’ to have machines do our work. Noone back answered him,

The first stroke came in the summer of ’95. It claimed Henry in the middle of a foundation pour in forty two degrees heat. He suddenly lurched backwards into a 1.5 metre trench and speared his right ankle with a 5mm. steel rod. He lay cursing and yelling, pinned in the trench. Someone had the sense to grab the bolt cutters and cut the rod to let him out. His face was all dropped on one side and he could only grunt and squeal like a stuck pig. Jacko put him in the ute and drove to outpatients. We finished the concrete pour giggling like school girls, that Henry had finally got his. I decided to keep the steel rod as a momento. It still sits in my tool box.

The next four weeks were bliss. No Henry and the place just ran itself. Henry’s son (now forty seven years old with four kids) was allowed free reign to run the business. It thrived. Henry spent the rest of ‘95 in a wheelchair on his verandah. It overlooked our work yard where we assembled each morning to get our orders(a new arrangement instigated by the son). We all yelled G’day to Henry every morning. He grunted bad language and called us ’ pussies ‘. That’s how the day started for us.
In real hot weather he would be lifted out of the wheel chair and put to a table on the verandah. Each gnarled old leg would be placed in a shallow tub of water, Henry swore by this as a way to stay cool. It was left to his long suffering wife (May) to administer this. Henry stayed out on the verandah all day, catching a glimpse at us coming and going getting materials . He watched us as only he could.
May died in the Winter of ’96. A beaten, defeated woman with a heart of gold, who would smuggle in an extra $10 note if she knew you were battling a bit. May always did the pays. Henry was more subdued after May died. Absolutely determined to stay in the home even though he could not boil water, he gave the family much grief. The second stroke in October ’96 made the decision for him. Wheeled off to a nursing hospital, Henry was finally removed from my life. I did not visit him although I often had a twinge of guilt. Then one day someone said he had died. Henry was no more.

I left the industry in March ’97, choosing to go back to study and change direction. Now I am so far from the industry all seems a dull memory. I still think about Henry in a weak moment. How he caused me much grief and anxiety over the years and nearly broke me physically many a time.

It remains hard to be sentimental when it comes to Henry. He was such a mean bastard. A comment did stand out for me for me at Henry’s funeral though. Questioning an old work mate why he was here, Anthony replied, " Simply to make sure the old bastard goes in the ground ".
So be it. Most were thinking the same I suspected.

why I hated Henry..........


Melbourne, Australia

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Artist's Description

Henry was a saga within himself. He was a hard task master

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  • Danny
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  • Anne van Alkemade
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