Pauline Hanson is back so it’s time for the return of my story
CODPIECE & CHIPS
Prince of Wales Hotel, Nundah, Brisbane, March, 1996
A MAN’S voice from behind me whispered four numbers in my ear. I turned around to see a short Asian man, neatly though casually dressed in a blue polo shirt and brown slacks. He repeated the four numbers.
‘That’s what I thought,’ I said and echoed the numbers.
He nodded. ‘Take them in the quinella and the trifecta.’
I retreated to a far corner of the PubTAB, turning to nod slightly at him. Lonely people, usually blokes, approach strangers in a betting agency to discuss the chances in the next race. He had made no effort to follow me.
His tips ran 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 10th. I did the math. If I had bet one unit on a box quinella and a half-unit on a box trifecta, I would have collected $1900 and change for an outlay of $18. I looked across at him and his face held no expression apart from a hint of sorrow.
He was beside me again five races later, minutes before a Brisbane event. Four more numbers he gave me, again for the quinella and trifecta.
‘Thanks,’ I said and made other wagers which lost. His numbers had won again. This time my collect would have been $1450 or so on $18 of bets. I sought him out.
‘You must be going well.’
His face was blank. ‘I cannot afford to bet. The next race won’t work out. I will tell you when.’
Taking tips from a man who can’t afford to bet is pretty dumb, but I did, anyway, when next he tapped me on the shoulder. I missed out on the trifecta where you need to back 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the right order. The best three of his four horses ran 1st, 2nd and 5th, instead of 3rd. I collected $82 on the quinella ─ backing 1st and 2nd in either order ─ for a win of more than $60.
I offered to buy him a beer and he took lemonade instead before we perched on adjacent bar stools. We introduced one another. I was Steele Hill. He was Mat bin Wardi. He was a 39-year-old from Malaysia. I was not interested in much of that. ‘Too bad, you are short of a dollar when your luck’s running hot, Mat.’
He sipped his lemonade. ‘I have money but not for gambling.’
‘You could have had a lot more,’ I said. He was a rare punter without regrets, could’ves and should’ves, we gamblers call them. The traditional riposte to should’ve-ers is ‘if me Aunty had balls’. The rest of the admonition ‘she’d be me Uncle’ is left understood. Mat was no should’v-er.
‘I only need what I have ─ $10,000 and enough to live on for two months.’
I looked for eavesdroppers. ‘I wouldn’t mention ten grand too loudly. That sort of dough makes some people do nasty things.’
He had already pledged the big money. ‘It’s for the Racing Minister.’
I imagined why Mat would give the Queensland Racing Minister 10 large but I came up empty. ‘See you later,’ I said and walked over to study the form sheet stuck to the wall.
He tipped me another quinella on the last race in Brisbane, $115 collect this time, but no buckets of gold from that elusive trifecta. It was time to go home, have dinner and maybe hit the Hendra TAB for the night’s trotting races.
I saw him walking down the footpath off Sandgate Rd in the opposite direction to where I was heading. I swung the EH around and pulled up beside him. ‘Wanna lift?’
He pointed down the footpath. ‘I can walk to Aspley.’
I suppose he could. ‘Bother, that’s gotta be seven or eight kilometres. Hop in.’
He put comfort ahead of self-reliance. ‘Thank you, Mr Hill.’
‘It’s Steele, and, if you’re worried you told me about that 10 grand, I’ll drop you near your place.’
‘Ten grand? Drop me?’
‘Let you off. She’s a tough old emu, our version of the English language.’
He laughed. ‘I love it. It’s just like Australia. Free.’
He gave me directions to the Aspley Caravan Park. We pulled up beside his rented van.
‘Would you like an early dinner?’ he said. He saw my look which pondered whether he could afford to shout. ‘Nothing special but tasty,’ he said.
We entered the van and he flicked on the tiny screen of a television set perched on a round cane table. ‘The six o’clock news will be on soon,’ he explained.
We had rice, pieces of fish and vegetables with both chilli and soy sauces ─ tasty indeed.
We talked; mostly he did, over dinner. Mat bin Wardi had been in Australia for fourteen months. He was a medical registrar in Malaysia and his wife was a nurse. Their two teenage children were in high school. By national standards, the family was doing all right. Middle class, he said. Asian stiffs, I thought.
It was the usual story. The kids have to do better than us. Take them to Australia to study medicine. Happily ever after, I think that’s how it finishes. You’ve probably seen the movie.
He interrupted himself when the news bulletin started. He turned up the volume on the television. I continued to eat and waited for him to re-kick his bio into action.
Both parents tried for permanent residence in the free Land of Oz, as a couple and as individuals. No go, they had preferred occupations but other things were not quite right. Mat came over alone on a 12-month visa to find work and sponsors. He found little of the first and none of the second.
A news item made him leap to his feet and point at the screen. ‘That’s her.’
I looked up to see a 40-something red-haired woman I had never seen before, but I watch little television.
Mat was winding himself up and the words flew from his mouth. Her name was Pauline Hanson. She had been kicked out of the Liberal Party for saying illiberal things about Asian immigration into Australia. She was still running for the Federal election as an independent. She owned a fish and chip shop. Sounded pretty mundane stuff to me – Mr and Mrs Bigot and the Bigot kiddies having a whinge around the barbie.
One aspect was a little strange and I asked about it. ‘Is it relevant she owns a fish and chip shop?’
‘No, I bought the fish we are eating from there and it reminded me I had read it.’
‘You bought fish and chips from Pauline Hanson’s shop? Did she serve you?’
‘Not from her shop which is way out in Ipswich. From a fish shop near here. I asked what sort of fish they had and the man said cod or whiting but they were out of whiting. I ordered a codpiece and chips. In Malaysian markets you can choose from many species of fish. I ate the chips at lunchtime with the batter I cut from the codpiece which we are now eating.’
‘Delicious,’ I declared, thinking Mat must have heard someone in front of him order a piece of cod and chips. His version of the order was close enough not to need correcting. He continued with his story of trying to bring the family to the Great Southern Land of Opportunity. Mat was desperate.
Can you adam-and-eve his luck? He met a man in a PubTAB. His new friend would see the Queensland Racing Minister, and, 10,000 of Mat’s dollars later, he would have permanent residence. Can you adam-and-eve it? Can you believe it?
I could see no point in explaining immigration was a Federal not a state responsibility. The best thing I could do for Mat was to meet this politically connected hustler about to relieve the would-be New Aussie of 10K. I changed the subject to his racing system.
Mat bin Wardi was using numerology to pick the placegetters in races. Certain numbers are connected. More than that, they are the same number, only different. When that number, or series of four numbers, which are actually the one number, will come up is determined by previous results. I know it sounds complicated but it is reasonably straight forward when an Asian numerologist such as Mat explains it.
You are probably saying it is all hoodoo-guru-voodoo tripe and I agree. But I still win on the system from time to time, so I am not sharing any more details, in case you follow the system and erode my winnings.
We finished dinner and I wrote down my phone number in case Mat wanted a lift to a TAB.
I tried his system on the horses over the next month. Sometimes, I used just Mat’s numbers. Other times, I mixed his numbers with my own scientific selections. During the third week, I finally cracked the trifecta, a $2500 collect at the Mooney Valley trots. I lost half my winnings during the next week. Betting on the greyhounds from home on a Thursday night, I received the call. The bloke who knew the Racing Minister had disappeared along with Mat’s $10,000. Mat was skint and needed unemployment benefit. Could I help? We met the next day at the Prince of Wales pub. He looked spent and I asked him if he had walked. He denied it.
He explained why he needed my help. ‘I have no money to pay anyone to get me unemployment relief and I don’t know how to do it any other way,’ he said.
I promised to ring someone. Sexy ambitious public servant Cassie Billings had almost got me killed five years earlier. She owed me. The Nundah dole office told me still-20-something go-getter Cassie had moved to head office. I phoned her there.
She remembered me. ‘Oh, right, you’re the beno I exchanged tongues with a while back on the top floor of our building.’ I was glad I was memorable for my speaking in tongues.
Five years on, I was again sucked into a verbal joust with Cassie Billings. ‘Cassie, I thought you weren’t allowed to use the b-word as in beno for unemployment beneficiary.’
She seemed to be sucking on a lollipop or a biro while she spoke. ‘I’ve made a unilateral exception for a spunky beno like you. How you doing?’
I was owed, that’s how I was doing. ‘You almost got me killed.’
She made a sympathetic sound in her throat. ‘Almost, as in you’re still alive. How can I help you?’
I explained about Mat. She said she expected a more exciting request but she would post the application and identity forms. She could not process the forms herself. She would line Mat up with a Chermside assessor who would play nice. ‘Jamie Harris, remember that name; he’s kosher.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, wondering what kosher meant in public-servant speak apart from consuming too much American culture.
The forms arrived in the post below a With Compliments slip. ‘Call me, Sweetie,’ Cassie Billings had written on the with-comps. I wrote ‘why would I call you Sweetie?’ below her message before I decided the jest was lame. I binned the note.
Mat and I went through his caravan looking for all the items you need to make up the points for identity. We came up a little shy so I rang people I know in the industries of printing and forgery.
Within a few days, Mat’s proof of identity was sweet. We even had a notice of termination of employment and a glowing reference, both courtesy of my illegal bookmaker mate, Con Vitalis. It seemed Vitalis also had a lawful business in office supplies. That sideline business existed only on very convincing paper.
I coached Mat to be respectful but not too nervous when he applied for the dole. He needed to ring beforehand and make sure he would be interviewed by Jamie Harris. Mat was to mention Cassie Billings. If Harris did not respond positively, we would have a re-think.
Mat attained his interview with Mr Harris. Mat said it appeared to go well. Harris asked about his other work besides his stint in office supplies. Mat answered truthfully about his lowly paid back-breaking farm work of vegetable picking, north of Brisbane. Harris asked about his family in Malaysia. The public servant appreciated Mat’s fervent wish to earn enough to bring them all to Australia, the land of the free. Harris said Matt should have his first cheque in the mail in three weeks.
He waited three weeks and nothing turned up. Another week passed and still nothing. Mat asked me what to do and I was unsure. We decided to wait another week.
Two days later, it was I who received a phone call from Jamie Harris. He wanted to see me at the Chermside unemployment office.
Harris was in his late 20s, of average height and skinny. He wore all black from top to toe, including long black hair in a ponytail. He spoke in a deep warm voice. ‘Come in, Steele. You’re quite a character from what Cassie Billings tells me.’ He guided me to a seat at a desk opposite him in a private cubicle.
We spoke about the weather. We talked about Cassie Billings. The conversation moved to music and he was in a bluegrass band. ‘You should come see us play. I will put you down for one-plus-one on the door.’ I thanked him for the offer of two free tickets to a gig. After that, we were down to business.
He asked me how I knew Mat bin Wardi. I was figuring the odds and decided a half-truth was the way to go. I would sort of say we met at the TAB. ‘We both turned up for work at the same place.’ He guessed the end of the tale. ‘No luck with the work, ay?’ I shook my head.
‘Not that day, no.’
He looked down at the desk in embarrassment but raised his head with a smile. ‘It is going to be Mat’s lucky day, today. He is a good bloke. I worked in a country office for a few years. Like Mat, I did a bit of vegetable harvesting to raise a few extra shekels as pub gigs in the bush pay shit.’
I nodded in agreement, knowing, for most bands, pub gigs pay shit, city or country.
His expression became more serious, but still friendly. ‘The thing is, I did not wish to worry Mat, but my superior is holding up the application. I tell you; three times I’ve tried to hide it under her nose by slipping it among straight-forward payments. She has caught me out every time.’ Harris tapped his own nose twice, with a finger, as if that meant something to me.
I felt my own index finger move towards my nose but I retracted it, not seeing value in exchanging obscure signals. ‘What’s the problem?’ I asked.
He shook his head and waved his arms to show he had no problem with Mat or me. ‘He forgot to put in his passport. Mat has sufficient identification, but in cases like his, we need to see his passport.’
‘Is that it?’ I said. ‘Mat just has to bring his passport in and you will give him a counter cheque.’
He gave me a vigorous thumbs-up. ‘That’s it. You can even bring the passport in for him. I’ll photocopy it and phone you, Steele, when Mat can come in for his cheque. He has absolutely nothing to worry about.’
I thanked him and said I would see Mat immediately and have the passport for copying within the hour.
Mat took some time to find his passport. I asked him why he had not thought of it when we put his identity together. He said he did not know. ‘I give you my passport and I will get paid, Steele? And you’ll bring it back straight away.’
I laughed at Mat’s worrying nature and at his relief when I brought the passport back within 45 minutes.
Immigration officials came for him, two days later.
They worked fast and said he would be on the plane to Malaysia within two months, after they had interviewed him thoroughly.
They allowed me to visit him in his detention cell. It was funny. He was the calmest I had seen him. ‘It’s not your fault, Steele. I should have told you why I did not want to give you my passport when we first looked for identity documents. You tried to help me, but you were too trusting. It’s not your fault. Your personality is in the numbers. We are friends. When I come back to Australia, I will meet you at the Prince of Wales.’
I said I’d like that.
I rang the bluegrass man. Harris said it was nothing personal but the Australian ecosystem needed zero population growth. ‘It is all our land can sustain,’ he said.
I asked him about the rigmarole of calling me into his office and making me get Mat’s passport.
‘You won’t help another one of them, after this,’ he said and hung up.
Another one of them, the phrase rang in my ear.
PAULINE Hanson was elected to Federal parliament before Mat was deported. I took a little more interest in politics after that and asked Gooroo to send me a copy of her maiden speech.
She was still banging on about her favourite sore points. ‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.
‘If I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say into who comes into my country.’ She said her views were based on ‘common-sense and my experience as a mother of four children and as a businesswoman running a fish and chip shop’.
From Bernie Dowling's Naughty Nineties – Steele Hill Short stories