Four Oarsmen of the Apocalypse

by Bernie Dowling


Bernie Dowling

Shorncliffe, a Brisbane suburb, May 4, 1996

ME mate Gooroo dubbed them the Four Oarsman of the Apocalypse. Before that, I knew them as the four blokes who grew up together in the seaside suburb of Shorncliffe: Blue, Wazza, Stretch and Brian.

Socially they did everything together, though, being in their mid-twenties, two were married. It was different times in those days and marriage rarely ran foul of mateship. I ran into them some Saturday afternoons in the Osbourne Hotel (now the Blue Moon) at Sandgate, Shorncliffe's neighbouring suburb. When in a romantic mood, I would travel to the Osbourne to take in the sea air and play the ponies at the Osbourne PubTAB.

The two wives I forget their names would sometimes have lunch with the lads who quickly excused themselves after coffee for a couple of hours on the punt. They were very ordinary gamblers after a smattering of beginners' luck ran out. I vainly tried to engage high-school maths teacher Wazza in conversation on the Theory of Probability. Jesus, Steele, I don't want to talk work,' Wazza would say. I just wanna have a few quiet bets on the horses.' That was when I realised that I, lowly educated to Year 10 by nuns at the orphanage, was better equipped to win on the punt than uni-graduate Wazza.

Two of the four were chalkies, as we call teachers; the third an electrician or sparkie as we say in Oz. The fourth was a plumber or dunny diver. Their divergence into higher learning and trade created no rift. Apprentices and students develop the same central social skill: partying hard on limited funds. Student and trade parties were raucous affairs and the quartet bounced merrily among such youthful celebrations.

Their favourite rock bands were Australian: The Paradise Motel from Melbourne, Powderfinger from Brisbane and Sydney's The Cruel Sea. Musically, as in all things, they were a loyal bunch. The four of them, falling over themselves late one night, blaringly slurring the chorus of the Cruel Sea's Better Get a Lawyer was one of the terrifying sights of my life. That apart, I found their musical tastes surprisingly sophisticated.

They lived by the sea and loved The Cruel Sea, but they showed no affinity for water that did not come from a tap or bottle. Out of the blue one Saturday, they invited me to the launch of the tinnie they had bought, together of course. A tinnie is an aluminium row boat, though invariably powered by a small outboard motor, attached to the stern. I declined their kind offer, saying I was going to the races the next weekend of the launch. It was not quite true, as I was banned from every Australian racetrack from Cape York to Perth.

Stretch said it was Sunday and I thought, why not. I should unleash my inner Bronzed Aussie upon the mighty waves. Which boat ramp is it at?' I asked.

They looked bamboozled by the question. Brian explained. We are having it at my place; that's where we are keeping the boat at the moment.'

Is it a boat or a ship?' asked plumber Blue.

It's a boat,' said the former electrician Brian.

I am not so sure,' said Blue.

Where do I work, Blue?' said Brian condescendingly as he winked at me.

I saw that,' said Blue. Exclusive signals threaten group cohesion.' Blue taught psychology at uni. The retreat into professional jargon masked his realisation Brian had chucked his sparkie trade to become a clerk in a shipping company.

I lightened the mood. We need social cohesion but why are we having the launch at Brian's rather than by the sea?'

Wazza reflected. Never thought of that. S'pose we could change it.

I've cleaned the barbie,' said Brian forlornly.

We all thought about that one. A barbie is a barbecue, not a doll. I could see the decision could go either way and the faces of the four showed deep consternation. I felt bad about creating the dilemma. Everyone likes a barbie,' I said.

Wazza agreed, and added another valid point. The ones by the sea are rarely clean.'

People should clean public barbecues, after they use them,' said Blue.

Stretch stiffened to his full height which was nearly two metres. Social cohesion,' he said.

Too right,' said Brian.

At 10am, the next Sunday, I arrived at Brian's with a slab of rump steak and a half bottle of red wine. At Australian barbecues, it is traditional for the host to provide the salad and bread rolls, so the role of guest is a good part. Brian's wife I forget her name put my steak in the fridge and brought me a glass. She saw I was transfixed by the sight in front. She looked at the show in the front yard, shook her head in my direction and scurried back into the house.

The tinnie was sitting on four thick planks and Brian was seated on the ground beside the front end. Blue, Stretch and Wazza leaned over Brian.

Where's the trailer?' I asked.

Stretch waved his hand dismissively. We forgot to buy one. No big deal; we'll get one later.'

Blue nodded. Lucky we decided to have the launch here. Could have been embarrassing.'

I stepped closer to inspect the streaky writing Brian was applying in red with a big artist's brush. The first word was done along with the B of the second. Brian roughly pushed back his outstretched arms, splashing paint on his naked thighs and T-shirt as he did so. Give an artist some room,' he said testily. I could envisage Jackson Pollock having a go at aluminium for a canvas but I have never seen the result. I looked at the paint tin beside the artist. It was called Cherry Red. I doubted if Brian thought to ask whether it was the best for aluminium, but I held my tongue.

I withdrew but had to step closer to decipher the first word. It looked like Apocalypse. Blue was nearest me and turned in my direction. It's Apocalypse,' he said. I nodded.

Brian created a small o beside the B. The third letter was w. Brian was done.

Wazza considered. Apocalypse Bow. I don't get it.' He pronounced Bow as in bowe.

It's bow,' an exasperated Brian said. He stood up abruptly, knocking over the paint tin. Cherry Red oozed across the lawn.

Upright, Brian bowed his head and shoulders over and over again. It's bow; it's bow; bow, bow, bow'

Wazza shook his head. Still don't get. Bow like in curtsey. We're curtseying at the Apocalypse. Don't get it.'

Stretch tried to help. Bow like the bough of a tree. That doesn't work; it's not made of wood.'

Blue's face was as cherry red as his paint and he was speechless. The morbid side of my nature was enjoying the fun but empathy overcame it. I think it's a pun on the film Apocalypse Now. That's rather clever.'

Wazza had a eureka moment. Oh, the bow of a ship.'

Brian found speech. It's a bloody boat.'

Over lunch and a few drinks, we all warmed to the name, finally deciding Brian's choice was a stroke of genius. The afternoon might have finished on that cheery note had I not foolishly asked to see the outboard. The four had something up on me because they smirked in unison.

Stretch spoke for them. Outboards are for girls,' he said. The two wives looked at each other. We're rowers,' Stretch declared.

He looked at me as if I should ask for more explanation. I took a sip of red and looked to the heavens. Might rain,' I said.

Blue went into the garage and returned cradling four stubby plastic paddles. He looked at me smugly.

They are not oars,' I said. They're paddles.'

A mellowed Brian turned to me. How we gunna fit four oars in our tinnie along with our Eskies and our rods and other fishing gear?'

I knew this conversation was heading somewhere sad and tried to cut it short. Fair enough.'

No luck, Brian had to continue. With four of us rowing, we don't need any outboard.'

I had to tell the story to me bookie mate, the Gooroo. He summed up. So they think, with the weight of four men and fishing gear, they can paddle out to sea, muck about out there and return safely.'

Don't forget the Eskies,' I reminded him. That's pretty much it except they won't be paddling; they'll be rowing.'

Fair enough,' the bookie said and he dubbed them the Four Oarsmen of the Apocalypse.

I said I would buy them an outboard as soon as I had a decent win on the horses.

I'll spring for the outboard,' he replied.

I asked him why he would do that and he said I should tell them about his professional services. They might as well give their money to me as the TAB.'

You big softie,' I replied. You think, because I told you the story, you are obligated to prevent the inevitable tragedy.'

Not at all, Steele. Even if they don't punt with me, that story is priceless, worth a lot more than a lousy outboard.'

What about the boat trailer?' I asked.

Don't worry about that. As long as they don't have a boat trailer, we keep them out of the cruel sea.'

The Four Oarsmen of the Apocalypse were using the outboard within a month of my giving it to them.

Shortly after that, they decided it was safer and more comfortable to go fishing in pairs. It was the first time anyone remembered seeing the four of them apart on a social outing.

Brian and his wife sometimes went out in the tinnie and so did Stretch and Leanne. That's right, that was her name, and Kirsty was married to Brian.

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