Filling Station Man
Flinders is a friendly place. There aren’t many people here – the population is less than 1,000 – and the pace of life is relaxed. The locals are happy to chat, as Rob and Lorraine demonstrated yesterday.
Our car is a Rav 4, supplied by Rob. It’s the first 4WD I’ve driven, and it seems like a smart move on an island as remote as this. We call at a filling station and fall into easy conversation with the old guy who takes our money. He’s been to Britain once, to meet up with distant relatives in Scunthorpe. I ask what he made of Scunthorpe and he says hurriedly that, if truth be told, the family hails from a rural area a little way out of town. I nod sympathetically, saying that I’ve heard that lots of people come from Scunthorpe but very few choose to go back. He doesn’t demur.
After the family reunion, Filling Station Man and his wife had travelled on to Scotland, and were astonished to pass through Killiecrankie. This came as a bit of shock, he explains, as Killiecrankie is a tiny settlement just a few kilometres up the road, in the north of Flinders. We take his point. To drive through Tassie is to drown in a flood of familiar place-names, the names of counties, cities, towns and villages from across the length and breadth of the UK.
Over the past four weeks we’ve passed through, or close to Kettering, Sheffield, Swansea, St Helen’s, Derby, Devonport, Brighton, Bridgewater, Perth, Margate, Melton Mowbray, Somerset, Strathblane and Southport to name but a few. In so many ways, whether it be the place names, the landscape or even the climate, Tasmania conjures up misty-eyed memories of the Old Country. Tassie is, I tell myself, like the UK with added wombats, and is therefore a good thing.
We continue to pass the time of day. Filling Station Man asks where we are heading, and when we say to the north of the island he says to watch out for the remains of the air-raid defences.
“That’s difficult to believe,” I say, “This place is in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s true,” he replies. “In 1942, after the fall of Singapore, Australia was thought to be vulnerable. The theory was that the Japanese might capture Flinders and use it as a base from which to launch air-raids on Melbourne and Hobart. So the government put up a string of defences to protect us from attack.”
“Really?” I ask, the doubt obvious in my voice.
“I know it for a fact,” he replies “because my father helped build them.”
We shake our heads thoughtfully. Looking around us the story seems so improbable, yet it’s plainly true. I can see it in Filling Station Man’s eyes, which shine brightly at the thought that once, long, long ago, his family here on Flinders had a walk-on part in a conflict that turned the world upside down.
A couple of hours later we are in the north of Flinders, parked up by the beach. Like so many stretches of shoreline in Tasmania it is both completely deserted and stunningly beautiful, and we wander off to explore. A few minutes later I glance behind me and in the distance see a guy standing by our car.
Immediately my 21st century urban paranoia kicks in … someone’s standing next to my car, why doesn’t he stand somewhere else, he must be planning to break in and nick it, or maybe he wants the radio or the wheels, I’m going to keep my eyes on him the thieving bastard. I scurry back, masking my anxiety with phoney nonchalance.
“G’day,” he says as I approach. He smiles warmly, drawing deeply on his cigarette.
“Er .. oh … hi,” I stutter, thrown off-balance by his friendly charm. Where the hell’s his crowbar, I wonder to myself.
“Grand day,” he says, “we’re due some good weather after the last few months.”
“Yes, we’ve heard it’s been rough,” I reply, sheepish now. It’s evident that this guy has no agenda beyond a leisurely fag break.
“Where are you from?” he asks. It’s a familiar question. Almost without exception the Aussies we’ve met have been friendly and have asked about home, how long are we staying, do we like it here and so on. When we say we’re from the UK he says he’s never been, though he’s visiting Donegal next year to meet up with an old friend.
“My son’s been to the UK though. Had his camera stolen when he fell asleep on a train from Edinburgh to London.” I feel suitably ashamed for having doubted this guy’s intentions when the welcome we have received in Oz has been so warm while his son was treated so badly back home.
We chat amiably in the hot sun. He’s 68, and is doing contract work as a lineman for the hydro. He earns $76 an hour but has to pay his taxes and insurances out of that. It seems generous, no wonder everything’s so expensive if a lineman for the hydro earns that much. But good luck to him I think to myself, it must be tough to earn a living here on Flinders. “Also,” Hydro Man adds, “I run sheep and cattle on my property, and we’ve got some holidays lets too. And three months a year I go off shearing sheep.”
There’s a pattern emerging here, which we’ve already seen in Rob and various other people we’ve met. On Flinders people don’t just have a job, they have multiple jobs, they do a bit of this and that, here and there, and if they’re flexible and hardworking there’s a decent living to be made.
“Have you got a garden?” he asks suddenly, apropos of nothing in particular.
“Yes,” I say, “about 75 square metres out the back. What about you?”
“Yep, we’ve got a small garden,” Hydro Man replies, “About two-and-a-half acres.”
It’s a different world you know, out here on Flinders Island.