You don’t need to tell me that appearances can be deceptive. Especially, you don’t need to tell me.
As a judge of character, I’m the guy who’d pick Judas as a bloke you could depend on, Jack the Ripper as a date for my sister and Charles Manson as my social secretary. These days I trust my instincts about people as much as I’d trust a motor mechanic’s arithmetic.
But it wasn’t always so. Along with most people, I used to have a pretty high opinion of my ability to see the real person behind the mask, the phoney, the bad egg. l could pick them a mile off, any of them, of whatever colour or creed. Thieves, sneaks, traitors, you name it, I could smell them.
Then I met Wayne. He was a tall, straw-haired bloke with acne and a shifty grin. A nice enough cove if you weren’t too particular. He used to come for morning tea at a weigh bridge years ago when I was spending a couple of lifetimes in an industrial gulag on the windswept edges of Botany Bay.
Every morning at 10 o’clock, and then again at in the arvo, a little group – Nick Stanopolus, Mick Reilly and myself – would come together over tea and sandwiches to sort out the problems of the world. Nothing was beyond us. We’d tackle the weightiest topics, such as the meaning of life, the possibilities of world war and peace, atomic theory, God’s existence and temperament, the human condition, the battle of the sexes, and South’s chances against Manly on Saturday. We’d identify the problem, bounce it around and come up with workable solutions before the whistle blew to get us back to work.
We’d reconvene around three o’clock, as the factory snoozed in post-lunchtime lethargy, when we’d dismantle the elegant solutions proposed, seconded and passed in the morning. On afternoons when nothing moved, hot days when not a dog walked the streets, the talk would lapse in agreeable lassitude as we listened to Nick wheeze and complain about the amount of sleeping tablets he was taking. In colder weather, we’d şteam up the windows with heated debate and cups of steaming meat extract as trucks pulled on to the bridge and drivers blew on their hands.
Then Wayne joined us.
He was a works clerk, a penciller whose daily patrol took him to the weigh bridge around morning tea. At first he propped inside the door and listened to the talk, putting in a word or two, before gradually becoming a member of the group.
He never had much to say that made sense, but that was no impediment. His shtick was of tales from gambling nights he organised for charity, the virtues of roulette over blackjack, expert tips on how to play poker and how he could drink his dad under the table.
This went on for a few months and could have gone on forever, the way countless industrial coteries pass the time in workplaces all over, until one morning we came to work to find the police waiting in ambush for … Wayne.
They were everywhere, squads of uniforms, grim-faced detectives setting their traps like something out of Hill Street Blues. They hid around the front gates, squad cars out of sight until Wayne came in on his motorbike. They rushed him as was taking off his helmet, and he was busted.
He didn’t put up a struggle and the last we saw of him was a pale face in the back of a squad car sweeping out the gate at high speed. That morning a very subdued group met for morning tea. What had happened, were we all under suspicion?
It turned out that Wayne, dopey Wayne, who didn’t know who was Prime Minister of India, had a modus operandi worthy of Jesse James. When he left us in the morning, having disposed of Colonel Gaddafi and the Suez Question, he’d make his way to the car park, hop on his motorcycle and zoom on down to the nearest bank. There he’d pull out a sawn-off shotgun, walk up to the counter and demand money. The tellers, who later described his manner as ‘chilling,’ hurried to obey. Outside he’d leap back onto the bike, take off to the gulag and be at the weigh bridge that arvo to lend an ear to Mick’s careful analysis of where Rommel went wrong in the African desert, and Balmain in the second half.
I never suspected a thing. Neither did the other blokes. Yet there we were, breaking bread and aphorisms with a bloke who a couple of hours before had threatened to blow a girl’s head off if she didn’t give him the money. He did five banks before they caught him. He went back to the same one once too often. Got away with over $20,000 and blew it all on the roulette and card tables he organised in his family home for charity gambling nights. They gave him l0 years hard.
Soon afterwards my own release came and I left the gulag forever. l haven’t seen Nick or Mick in years and I wonder if they ever think of Wayne. I know l do. Every time someone tells me that they can pick ’em a mile off, I think of Wayne. Every time someone says to me, ‘Trust me.’ Every time I read that the bank robber rode away on a motorcycle. Every time l judge the cover of a book.