Pat laughed out loud, then said, “That Tom-the-Pom, what a little bastard!” He shook his head in admiration of Tom-the-Pom’s bastardly ways and chuckled to himself.
(Tom-the-Pom wasn’t present at the worksite with us, he was off searching for Ben.)
“Yeah,” I agreed. “He feels the same way about you too mate. Except more so.” I did my best Tom-the-Pom imitation as I continued, “That blasted Pat, what a bleedin big headed bloody bastard!”
“Ahaw haw haw!” laughed Pat.
I looked over at him, adding, “That’s what he thinks of you, mate! Hapuka Head*!”
“What?” said Pat, his eyes flashing red. For a minute I wondered if I’d gone too far. Nobody called Pat Hapuka Head to his face. Most of the men didn’t even call him that behind his back.
*Hapuka, fish found in New Zealand waters. Known for a large head.
Pat was the depot foreman. He didn’t tolerate disrespect of any kind.
We were standing in the dust and noise of the worksite. Pat had come up to have a chat and see how I was doing. I liked Pat, and it was a relief to stop and put my shovel down, or rather to stand and lean against it.
Pat was a larger than life character. A giant of a man with a booming voice and a Maori warrior’s stance. He loved a laugh and was good to the men. He was looking out for me, I thought, me being very young and having just started at the depot, although he never admitted he was.
He raised his voice to be heard above the earthmoving machines rumbling past, “So he called me Hapuka Head, did he? The little shit! Ahaw haw haw!”
Pat threw his head back and laughed heartily, showing his white teeth.
“Hell!” he said. “I know what that jumped-up-never-come-down-little-so-and-so thinks before he even thinks it!”
I felt suddenly bold, and asked outright, “Mind powers is it, Pat?”
Many myths surrounded Pat at the depot, where myths and rumors were rife. Myths about his strength and wisdom. Myths about his pranks, his manliness and his drinking prowess. Myths about the fierce justice he dispensed and the men he’d bested. It was said at the depot that Pat had mind powers effective on all living creatures to some degree, but more so on the weak minded.
To hear the men tell it, Pat had even brought the dead back to life.
Years before, after weeks of rain a worker had fallen into a flooded stormwater culvert. It was dangerous, fast moving water and nobody wanted to jump in after him. That would’ve been suicide. The worker was trapped underwater against some debris, they could see him from where they were. By coincidence Pat arrived at that moment and hearing from the men that somebody had fallen in he dove straight in after him. The men watched from above as Pat fought the rushing water and dragged the lifeless body out.
“This guy’s dead,” said the men, and so he was according to Malcolm, who told me the story.
Malcolm was the depot engineer, well educated and not given to believing every rumor that came his way. “He wasn’t moving and he wasn’t breathing either,” added Malcolm. “He’d been underwater quite awhile before Pat dragged him out.”
The gathered men stood by in silence and watched as Pat kneeled beside the corpse. The only sound was the rushing water in the culvert. Pat bent down and began to give the drowned man mouth to mouth resuscitation. Where he’d learned it nobody knew. Again and again Pat blew the breath of life into the dead man’s mouth.
Miraculously, within a few minutes the drowned worker was up and asking what happened and did anybody have a spare smoke? His were all soggy.
“Sure I can read Tom-the-Pom’s mind!” said Pat to me as the earthmoving machines rumbled past. “It’s not very difficult to figure out what he’s thinking. It’s obvious he resented being told to look for Ben.” Pat turned and faced me more squarely, then said, “You were just thinking that yourself, weren’t you?”
Surprised, I answered simply, “Yes I was.”
Ben had gone a little crazy over the summer from the heat and dust of the Tristram Ave worksite, and now he was missing. No one had seen him for the last week. Pat, not wanting the police involved in a depot matter, had ordered a few of the men, Tom-the-Pom included, to search for Ben.
“It’s no trick to read a mind that small,” laughed Pat. “You see? Even you can do it.”
It’s true. Tom-the-Pom had crossed my mind as I was shoveling shit from the bottom of a ditch, before Pat had arrived. It’s not rocket science to labor at the bottom of a ditch, and I often let my mind wander as my body did the work. I’d been thinking about Tom-the-Pom and Ben. I didn’t much care for Tom-the-Pom. He used to taunt me mercilessly about my youth and my naivety and my being a yank. (The other men did too, but they weren’t so mean spirited about it.) He and Ben detested each other and their bickering often made for amusing reflections as you shoveled away the shit of the day.
Tom-the-Pom, who didn’t care for Pat and scorned (behind Pat’s back) his authority, certainly would have felt himself ill-used to be ordered to search for Ben.
“Hell!” repeated Pat. “I know what that little pipsqueak thinks before he even thinks it mate.
“It’s reading your mind I’m having a little trouble with,” he added with a wink.
“Huh?” said I. Every time I was convinced that Pat couldn’t possibly have mind powers, up sprang an instance of apparently that very thing. It was a delicious uncertainty to me, this whole mind powers thing.
For I was young and hadn’t yet had much experience of the world and its wonders.
Reading books had opened my mind to some things, while at the same time it had shown me how uninformed I was about everything else. The curse of dawning wisdom is that one begins to understand just how ignorant one truly is.
Pat was held in the highest esteem by most of the men at the depot. Did he, as was rumored, possess special powers? Most of the men thought so. Did men need to believe in myths, I wondered, to hoist one of their humble number higher up, that he might reside closer to the gods? Did we, as humans, need something greater than ourselves to help us to greatness? Considering Pat, the mythological larger than life man-among-men whom it was rumored held sway over life and death, why couldn’t he read a mind?
Especially a mind as feeble as Tom-the-Pom’s.
By someone as powerful as Pat.
Who was I, unschooled and young, to say it was impossible?
I wasn’t surprised in the least to learn that my mind was more difficult to see into than Tom-the-Pom’s.
I’d have been mortified if it were otherwise.