Jim was a man who looked old to my young eyes, but was in fact in his late 40s. He had seven children and worked as a labourer when he could get work at all. He lived in modest circumstances in Bruthen - about 25 kilometres from Bairnsdale. Balding, overweight, and bulbous-eyed, he loved playing the bass drum for the local brass band. He once said to me, on condition that I didn’t tell anyone at the Bruthen pub, that if he could have his life over again he would be – a ballet dancer.
During my time in Bairnsdale I always had a legal file open for Jim. I obtained a divorce for him from his estranged wife of years before, so that he might marry the de facto by whom he had his seven children. He showed me a car he had managed to obtain and make roadworthy for $500. He came to me a few weeks later because a tree had fallen on the car during a storm, wrecking it. There was no one he could sue for recovery, and the car was uninsured.
But I also started a worker’s compensation claim for him.
Jim had been overworked and had terrible degenerative conditions as a result. The insurers wanted him examined by Collins Street specialists. I said that I didn’t know how he could get to Collins Street – it was a big outing for him to get from Bruthen to Bairnsdale. They arranged rail vouchers for him.
Jim had not been to Melbourne since 1950 – thirty years before. It was a huge event for him to get there. He arranged to stay with his sister in Heidelberg.
He came to see me on a Thursday before he caught the train out of town. He showed me his rail papers and checked through the appointments he had to get to the next day. He was due back after the weekend.
From my office in Bairnsdale the following Monday I could hear the Melbourne train arrive in the middle of the day. I knew it would not be long before I would receive a visit. Sure enough, the receptionist rang me to tell me that there was a clent here to see me.
He bustled up the stairs and into my office, bursting to tell of his experiences. How he got lost in Collins Street, and “Brian, the size of those buildings!” He told me that he and his sister, catching up on the Thursday night, had not seen their father for thirty years. Their mother had died when they were teenagers, and their father had remarried. They hadn’t got on with the stepmother. After numerous fights, their father had thrown them out of the house. They hadn’t seen him again.
He told me how he had caught the train to Flinders Street Station (this was before the City Loop existed). It was the Friday morning, the day of his appointments, and he got off the train at 9 o’clock at the height of peak hour. He was overwhelmed by the crowds.
He tripped over an old guy’s walking stick, and turned to apologise. There was something familiar about the face. An old man, suddenly crying on the platform, saying, “It’s not Jim is it? It’s not Jim?” And then he realized that it was his father, who had spent the last thirty years trying to find his son.
Jim’s father came to live with him later, and I met him. They argued again, and fell out, but didn’t lose each other this time.