Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Disaster is relative - Bill and Bu

A recent comment on national character questioned the idea that we are "better' at helping each other than other nationalities. I am instinctively inclined to agree. Surely this is a universl quality. On the other hand I do think nationalities develop certain evident characteristics over millenium - influenced by geography, weather, history, intercultural conflict, class structure etc etc. Perhaps as my correspondent points out: it's easier to be generous when there is greater capacity.

Here's a story which touches on that point. It's mostly true though I have since interviewed Bu and the story needs some adjusting. The essence remains true.

Bill Diacos' Gents Hairdressing Salon is not flash. When you walk in the door there’s a row of four ordinary metal chairs on the right hand wall of the narrow space. Opposite this is a counter where Bill takes the money. It is old style. The front, lined with diagonal slats of varnished pine, mark it as from the seventies. It looks like some of the furniture I’ve seen discarded in the Council’s annual kerbside cleanup program. But this one is not salvaged. It’s original.

On the other side of the room is a stainless steel, cream-upholstered leather chair facing a large mirror. The leather is severely cracked and if not for it being an essential element of the seventies era d├ęcor probably could have joined the counter in the discard pile.

On the wall are some of Bill’s paintings. Bill’s not just a barber. He’s also a portrait artist and a long time resident of West End. He’s one of the Greeks who stayed.

More often than not when I turn up there’s a ‘back in ten minutes’ sign on the sliding door. I see it today and glance over the road to the coffee shop and spy Bill having his morning coffee on the footpath with his local mates. His Greek mates. I decide to fill in the ten minutes with a walk down to Avid Reader, the local bookshop, for some browsing. Bill’s still not there when I wander back so I duck around the corner to Bent Books and Shaun. I place an order for an out of print copy of Helen Gregory’s History of the Brisbane River.

It’s third time lucky when I return but others have also seen the ten minute sign and timed it better than I have. I’m third in line. This week all the talk is of the recent flood. Everyone’s a local so everyone has a story. I watch Bill put the final touches on number one and I shuffle to the next chair as number two takes his place in the leather barber’s chair.

Bill knows most of his customers by name. I’m fairly new to Bill’s having spent fifteen years working at remote suburbs in the north and west of the city. I’m on long service leave for 6 months so I’m making a point of building my credibility on the streets of my suburb. I’m in it for the long haul. Give me another eighteen months and Bill might look on me more kindly, recognize me as 'local'.

Bill’s efficient. I don’t even get time to read the Courier Mail – the local tabloid with no saving graces bar listing the screening times for films. Now I’m on that cracked throne and Bill is doing what he does best. We chat and laugh. Bill’s got a relaxed style and seems content with his lot despite having spent the best part of thirty years working from this rectangular box. We get to sharing stories of the flood and he tells me a few tales of Greek relations coming to the rescue of each other and then he shares a story about his aunt’s neighbour.

This bloke’s house went under - up to the eaves. His home sat at the lowest point in Gray Road. It’s a road you wouldn’t expect to flood. It’s three blocks from the river but it happens to be part of a gully that runs across the street, through a series of backyards and links up with the flooded river four hundred metres away. The scene is devastating. The footpaths are piled high with ruined furniture, household goods, toys – whole lives sit forlornly and sodden waiting to be carted away. The piles are so high they almost block the view of the houses behind them. Bill had been helping with the cleanup and offered his help to the Aunt’s neighbor who has no relatives and few friends in Brisbane.

He’s moved to this city from Indonesia with his Australian wife. Bill asks him how he’s going and is shocked by the answer. Bu says “This has been the best day of my life”. “What do you mean?’ Bill asks, “You’ve just been wiped out. You’ve lost everything.” “No no. It’s been fantastic. People just came and helped me without asking. This has never happened before. I have so many new friends.” Bu is from Aceh in Indonesia where the 2004 tsunami launched itself on the coastal plains. Tens of thousands of people died in that tragedy. The government infrastructure was poor, the devastation was total and the ‘event’ arrived almost without notice. Bu and his wife had survived but, as now, had lost everything.

“Didn’t people help you?” “No. Nothing. They were all too afraid to return to the coast. People stayed away. Because there were so many people and villages affected there were few people left to help. Everyone had their own disaster to deal with.” “That’s why I like it here in Australia, in Brisbane.” “It was the best decision I ever made to come here. I am very happy.” " I have a house and no one died"

Bill stands silently looking at the mirror. He’s seen a lot, heard a lot of stories but this one has really touched him.


jane.healy said...

Touching story!

Selma said...

You have captured the sense of mateship and giving one another 'a fair go' that still characterises Australian society even in these cynical times. I like how you set the scene with the chairs against the wall and am so impressed by the "Everyone's a local so everyone has a story" line. That is a brilliant observation. I really, really liked this. In many ways it's what Australian life is all about!

Lena said...

And it's not just touched Bill. I've a huge lump in my throat, too. What an example of humanitarianism.

We had a 'Bill' here in Scotland. 'Peter the Barber' worked from an old shed renovated after war time ended. Doctors and drinkers alike went for their trims there. A clan in the creeds so to speak. A busy little guy he was. One of the biggest funerals we'd been to!

Jennifer said...

It really touches me too. Thanks for sharing this Steve. And it's a thing about Australians that I'm really glad to know.

Kathe W. said...

great story-touched my heart

Luvvie said...

Great story Steve! Robbie speaks fondly of his time at the Rosalie butcher - woops I mean barber...he has to settle for me now in the backyard - bonding time we call it. And my word verification is enate which I think is just an australian way of saying innate....storytelling is innate to hairdressing I reckon....