Den’s Best Days

A few weeks after they returned from Queensland, Den and Jo Newman settled down to watch a Netflix movie recommended to her by a mate. It was called ‘Dumplin’ and Denny thought it was a reasonable night’s entertainment. It had a couple of familiar faces and Jo seemed to be into it. Being male, he didn’t make any connection. It was the story of a larger than life teen who decided to crash her mother’s organisation of the local beauty pageant. The central character was of fuller figure and Den thought she was stunning. He would, he supposed. The girl had also found love with a young lad who adored her for her curves, as well as her brain. The main character railed against those who reacted more to her weight than her. This included her mother. She lacked all subtlety in the treatment of her daughter. When the real life couple couple retired to their bedroom later on, Den did notice that his wife was unusually subdued. Once in bed she wrapped herself around him and whispered, ‘That film. That was our story, wasn’t it. I owe you so much my beautiful man.’ Den truly thought it was the other way around, but he let it go with a wry smile..

Denny was a Burnie boy. His father worked in the accounts department at the Associated Pulp and Paper Mills, the town’s largest employer, commonly known as the Pulp. His mother was a competent seamstress who operated from home. Their son was an only child. He was thin but always hungry, sort of nondescript – becoming even more so as he grew. He was overindulged by his mother in the eyes of the father, Jim. Jim also, deep down, loved both his wife and son to bits.

Denny was a loner through most of primary school. He was competent in writing, reading and basic maths, but showed little aptitude for anything else. He did, though, have a passion. Some might term it a fixation. Trucks. Every story he wrote was about trucks. Every drawing – trucks. His bedroom wall was covered in clippings of trucks. At school, come recess or lunch, he would hare around the playground pretending he was a truck, complete with the necessary sound effects of changing gears in a semi or dumpster. The other kids thought him odd and stayed clear. Today I suspect he would be diagnosed on the spectrum. It worried his teachers. It worried his parents.

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It was a relief to all when the disconcerting behaviour moderated in upper primary. Now he just retreated to the school library, reading over and over again all they possessed on his favourite topic. The start of secondary education again, for a while, saw him shunned. But, by Year 8, it had all changed. He seemed to be starting to make friends. Only trouble was, they were of the wrong kind. ‘Easily led,’ his teachers regularly reported. To his parents’ consternation he seemed, in his free time, to be running wild around the suburb of Montello in a gang of juvenile ruffians, led by older boys. It came to a head when a local policeman turned up on the front door with Den in tow. He’d shoplifted from the corner shop. He was grounded for a month to try and break the cycle, but before they could evaluate the results the family’s circumstances changed. Den’s father was offered a new job.

Only potential issue was it required a move. It was thought the cement works, situated in a small town up behind Burnie’s sister city further to the east, was too far to commute to on a daily basis. The plus of moving for them would be the opportunity to get Den away from his negative influences, an environment he was hardly thriving in. They opted for the country community of Sheffield, about a quarter of an hour from Jim’s new workplace. They hoped a different school would settle Den down. It worked. For the first time their son was happy and accepted at his school. The smaller classes, rural situation and emphasis on the practical, as much as the academic, suited him. He loved the school farm, especially working on the tractor and agricultural machinery. He’d found a niche he was comfortable with and one those around him could accept him in. The kids were far less judgemental here than their big town neighbours and he finally found some friends who wouldn’t lead him up the garden path. He was still on the shy side, but at least he was smiling more now – laughing even. By the time Grade 10 came around he seemed perfectly content. Why, he even escorted a young lady to the leavers’ dinner at the end of the year. Even though she was on the reserved side too, she scared the shit out of him nonetheless. But he did manage to ask her to dance and she accepted. A first step.

Post Grade 10 even Denny realised he was no candidate for college, so he enrolled at TAFE for any courses to do with mechanics and engines. Jim’s father arranged for lifts down to the coast with an older boy in the town doing similar units of practical expertise, Paul, as his son was still on his L-plates. He was similarly a quiet fellow and Jim thought he’d be a positive influence, which he was. Paul also took on the job of mentoring him out in the wide world. Den liked Paul. Through Paul he learnt to chat about stuff other than trucks – the footy and the local girls, for instance. Paul had a girlfriend of sorts and often boasted to Den about what they got up to. Mostly Den tried to change the subject. He could never imagine being with a girl. But in introducing Den and Paul, Jim had inadvertently caused the worst event of Den’s young life.

Den was still rapt in trucks. He now was building up a library of books about them and subscribed to magazines. He harboured a hope of one day being a long distance truck driver – perhaps on the big island to north. Maybe he’d even wrangle those road trains in the outback. A kid could dream, but one winter’s morning those aspirations were shattered.

It was August 10, 1987. There’d been warnings of black ice on the country roads of the North West, but Paul was too inexperienced as yet to fully learn to drive to conditions. He could not be called a hoon by any stretch, but he loved to speed down the straights leading into Lower Barrington. What he wasn’t ready for was the ice on one of the sharp bends leading into the tiny hamlet. Paul and Den flew into a paddock, landing to the deafening sound of crashing metal. Paul was unhurt. As soon as he realised the condition of Den, he stumbled back up to the road for assistance. While they waited, Paul cradling him whilst the few guys he’d flagged down tried to extricate him, Denny lapsed into unconsciousness. When he came to in hospital, Jim and his mum by his side, he gradually realised something wasn’t quite right with his body. It was his father who broke the news that he had lost his left leg below the knee.

Later Den would tell that, although he felt the most miserable he’d ever been in his life, that terrible event led to his best days. It’d be a long time till he’d be able to drive a car – long after he’d mastered a prosthetic attached to his knee and thigh. Driving anything bigger would probably be beyond him.

His mother and father thought that, with the hard recovery from the accident and all the physio he’d have to go through, their son may well drop his bundle. They were wrong. He quietly took to his rehab with a steely determination they hadn’t witnessed before in him. Although they loved him deeply they were both of the opinion resilience wasn’t one of his attributes. They now felt a new sensation regarding their boy – pride.

So, that’s Den’s worst day. How about those good ones that stemmed from the wreck of Paul’s automobile?

Den’s dad knew John Freeman. John had started small with a delivery truck servicing Devonport and the towns in the hills behind it. When Jim received one of his deliveries from the docks they would chat and came to know each other pretty well as acquaintances. Then, one day, his truck arrived at the Goliath Cement Works with an unfamiliar face behind the wheel. Jim assumed John was just having a day off, but talking to the new guy he was informed that Freeman had taken over a larger trucking firm and was going to be managing it – but that he would still have the contract for Jim’s workplace. So the two men kept in contact through orders and such like, often chewing the fat about how things were going in general over the blower. Can you see where this is heading?

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Den’s recovery, despite his fortitude, was a slow process. By the time he came of age at eighteen he had a fair handle on his artificial attachment and was getting around on foot reasonably well. He was bored, though, restricted to his books, the tele and his dog in a small town. Paul was now more serious about that girl and was visiting less and less. Jim could see his son losing his positivity if he continued to be in his situation for much longer. So he made the call he’d been pondering on for a while – a phone call leading to Den’s best days.

*****

When it all was made public Den didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Yes, he could understand that his boss had stuffed up and been silly in the way he’d been caught out. And yes it was embarrassing for him to be written about in the local paper, the Advocate. Jo had helped him to understand that the newspaper would be interested because his girlfriend was a public figure as the deputy mayor. Still, as far as he and Jo were concerned, John was their friend so it wouldn’t change anything. Only problem with that was that John himself changed. Even Den, who was getting less obtuse as he aged, could see the man wasn’t himself. He was shattered – not the joking happy person he’d been before. This perplexed Den, but Jo explained that he must feel humiliated. When he disappeared without a word of goodbye to either of them, Jo was distressed. Den, for a time, was simply numb.

*****

Sure,’ said John, ‘we’ll give him a go. We’ll put him on for a trial for a couple of weeks. If he’s okay he’ll be added to the payroll. I’ll link him up with Matt in the workshop if, as you say, he likes being under a bonnet.’ Jim was effusive with his thanks. John just laughed, ‘Anything to keep my customers onside. You guys up there in Railton have stuck by me so it’s a bit of payback.’ John even had a solution for getting his new potential employee to the worksite beside the Mersey in East Devonport. ‘Don’t worry about that. I’ll have a word to Jo in the office. She lives up your way. She’s a ripper. She’ll look after your lad well and truly.’ And she did.

*****

People close to John knew something was out of kilter even before he was exposed – there was a vast change in his demeanour in the weeks leading up to it. It seemed he knew what was coming. And, even after the report referred to him as ‘a local businessman’, it was quickly figured out who that was. Many in the workplace changed their behaviour towards him, especially as the affair had occurred right under their noses. In the twelve months leading up to the shit hitting, April Pearson had been spending a fair amount of time around the office, on face value because she chaired a committee John was working on to improve the look of the town’s tired CBD. Jo, adept in such matters, claimed she, for one, thought something was going on and confided that to Den, but otherwise she kept her trap shut. It was the boss’ business. By now Den was in charge of maintenance but he was still fairly thick when something wasn’t staring him in the face, but he remembered a number of times he went to consult with John over something or other and she was in his office with him. For Den it was disconcerting, but he didn’t lose sleep over it.

*****

When Jim told his son John Freeman was giving him the chance of a job with his haulage firm Denny though he had died and gone to heaven. It was tempered a tad when his dad explained that a young lady would be picking him up each day and taking him down to the coast. That would give him something to think about certainly, but he was on cloud nine. He couldn’t stop smiling. The morning of his first day he was up with the chooks and out front half an hour before his transport was due to arrive.

*****

After the Advocate exposé, at home Jo and Denny talked it through. They recalled the days the previous week that John had been away on what patently hadn’t been a business trip. Instead, it transpired, he was holed up in a room in the Wrest Point tower while April attended her conference in the auditorium in the main complex. They were sprung when it also happened that staying in the tower was another Devonport alderman; in Hobart with his family for a short break. Said alderman wasn’t exactly enamoured of April, especially when certain rumours started to circulate. Imagine his surprise when he and his family, deciding on an early start to the day, encountered his colleague and the rumoured gentleman in question joining them in the lift. He cogitated on it for a few days and decided to confront the deputy mayor with the choice of resigning. If she refused he would raise his suspicions at the next council meeting under the label of misuse of ratepayers’ money. She chose the former. To the accuser, though, she didn’t seem contrite enough, so he leaked certain information to an Advocate reporter he was mates with. The couple knew their time was up when April was rung for comment. Jo expressed the view that she and John must be incredibly naive, or had a death wish, by staying at the most prominent locale in Hobart. Den didn’t quite get her drift but agreed nonetheless. He nodded his head when she remarked that, in a small place like Tassie, it was probably inevitable they’d be found out eventually, but why make it so easy for that to occur? It beggars belief, she went on, that he’d be shacked up in a place buzzing with people who knew her. And what was he thinking! One thing Den did know was that there was no way he’d ever be in that position. Even after all these years he was still madly in love with his Jo. Having a relationship with another woman just didn’t enter his head. But then, he wasn’t John Freeman.

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Jo, along with most people, liked April. She was bright and colourful, had worked long and hard for the local community and she lit up any room she was in with her vivacity. She could see why John would be so taken with her. In contrast, she couldn’t warm to John’s wife, Gloria. She, to him, seemed cold, if organised and efficient. She had a great reputation in her job as school principal for keeping staff and students in-line, but Jo also knew that she found it hard to have empathy. She rarely visited John at work and at the few company functions she attended she seemed bored and out of place. John also seemed diminished in her company. So, yes, John’s actions came as a shock, but she understood his motivation. He had been so good to her and nurturing in the workplace. It was the same with Den. No one was more delighted than John when he had informed him, all those years ago, that his employment was now permanent. And, of course, for Denny, that was another of his best days to add to his list. As a result of John’s misdemeanour, she did realise her world was about to change.

*****

Den had seen Jo about Sheffield. She was always with other people around the main street and he suspected she couldn’t be missed. He found her attractive from a distance – large, always laughing and wearing clothes he saw no other girls her age sporting. When he pointed her out to his mum she explained that young women with a fuller figure needed apparel that were designed to show their attributes in the best light. Den reckoned she looked a treat, but he could only dream of seeing the attributes of a girl like her. So, when she rolled up in her car that morning to take him to his first day’s work, he was taken aback, but he did feel a frisson of pleasure amidst all his nervousness.

Till this stage the only close contact he had had with a person of the opposite gender was the girl at his leavers’ dinner, more that a year now prior. His accident had set him back in this regard, although he did develop the hots for several of his nurses. But he was hardly in a position to act on those. He really had doubts whether he could even muster the courage to initiate a conversation with a young woman, let alone get to dating somebody. He knew something of sex from Paul – of course he did. If he was honest with himself, he still was unsure how one actually went about it – you know, the mechanics of the thing. But hopping into a car that frosty morning he had the feeling that something monumental in his life was about to occur. He only could hope that he didn’t stuff it up.

Jo, 23 to Den’s approaching 19, knew the guy opposite her by sight too. She could tell, though, by his stammered greeting, that he was perhaps going to be hard work going up and down the hills till they reached their destination, morning and evening. And he was zilch to look at – rake thin, hair already receding and a greasy, pimply looking complexion. But then, from the get-go, the way he looked at her was different. Guys didn’t look at her like that. They saw her weight before they saw anything else. She described herself as big, boisterous and best of all, buxom. The only relationships she’d had to date were with half-pissed guys at parties and fumbles behind the grandstand at country footy matches. She could never imagine any male truly falling in love with her. Little was she to know, as her compact car made its way down that rural road that day, she was embarking on a whole different journey to her life thus far.

Yep, initially he was hard work. She yakked her way from Sheffield to East Devonport and back again. But, even then, she found him comfortable to be with, just as Den himself found comfort with her voice and just looking at her as she drove. He surprised himself by also being comfortable in the workshops of Freeman Transport. Matt was a first rate mentor having guided lads, more useless than Den when they started, into productive workers. At least Den knew something about trucks to start with. Matt soon began to worry that Den, indeed, knew more than him. Knowing something was different to putting knowledge to practical use. This Newman boy was soon showing himself to being adept at that too. For a time he was almost painfully withdrawn. But he soon found common ground through a love of big boys’ toys. He was on his way. Like minds abounded at Freeman’s.

The weeks passed and Den was thawing with Jo. He was beginning to tell her a little about himself – and a bit more than just the superficial. He relayed to her the tough times he’d had with the bullies early on at school because of his oddness; his accident and the limitations of having to wear an artificial leg; his shattered dreams. In turn she discovered herself warming even more to him, to be hanging out for eight o’clock each working day when he was again in her company.

On one occasion he asked her, red in the face, if she had a boyfriend. She guffawed and without thinking retorted, ‘Who’d have me? Would you have me?’ She meant it as a joke, but the blush on Den’s face deepened. She’d hit a nerve. She sensed it and changed the subject. Boyfriends weren’t mentioned again.

Jo loved her work and she knew her work loved her. She skylarked with the drivers and mechanics, flirted in a spirited way and they returned it in spades – all harmless, mind. She knew the boundaries. So did they or the boss would be down on them like a ton of bricks. They knew she was a favourite. But none of them looked in the same way at her as Den did. She was even beginning to think that she could actually be loved in a deep and meaningful way. Of course Denny was completely smitten; a subject other than trucks being now to forefront of his mind.

After the embarrassment of the boyfriend question, Jo twigged that her male companion would never have the confidence to make any sort of move on her. It would be definitely up to her so, with his nineteenth birthday coming up, she developed a plan. Who’d have thought that after first impressions. And what better time to put it into place that his upcoming big occasion? She intended to make it his best day ever. But, before she outlaid on her germinating idea, she had to be sure.

As a married couple Jo and Den never had children. They never bothered to find out why. When she went off the pill and nothing happened she didn’t worry too much. She and her hubby just got on with life, happy with their togetherness. When questioned she just batted it away with the throw away line that Den was a big enough kid and she didn’t need any more. Besides, she secretly thought, the gene pool wasn’t a great one to pass on. If Den knew this he’d reckon she’d be majorly underselling herself, even if he had no tickets on himself in the looks department. He considered he’d well and truly hit the jackpot with his ravishing wife. And all he wanted was Jo. He was perfectly content – always had been since Jo entered his world, happy helping build a life together at the Don, a little community on the outskirts of Devonport.

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Whereas his wife loved partying and was totally, outwardly extroverted, he was happy just pottering away in his shed and tending to their garden. Under Jo’s wing his confidence in himself, though, did improve in social situations. With Matt’s tutelage he also became indispensable in the workshop and he knew that John appreciated the way he was constantly on call for breakdowns, night or day. The couple loved the open road so eventually the pair purchased a camper-van. After doing so they were constantly heading to the Mainland on the Spirit to explore their wide, brown land, as well as taking shorter trips within Tassie. They had no desire to venture out of Oz. Now and again they would upgrade their mobile accommodation, knowing that once retirement came around, they would spend the rest of their days grey-nomading. For years they planned the mother-of-all Queensland trips, their aim to caravan from the Gold Coast to the Tip. They were as excited about that as they had been about anything in their lives. Den was so looking forward to many more best days with his treasured wife.

So when John unexpectedly shot through their perfect world had its first major upheaval. After that work felt strange – it took them a while to adjust. Thinking about it, Jo realised that, in his mind, her boss hadn’t been really around for a while. Life under Angus, who took over, didn’t have the same sparkle. Sure, he was competent and knew the business backwards. But he was more an up tight kind of guy. There could be no stuffing around as there had been under John. He ran a tight ship, but not as happy a ship. Far more demanding than his predecessor, the trucking firm became a lean, streamlined organisation. Then one day the sign writers came in. The Freeman’s banner was removed, replaced by just Devonport Transport. Angus had bought out John. Around the same time something else changed. One morning, before the start of work, Angus called everyone together in the canteen. He thanked them for their support during the transition period. Then he dropped the bombshell. Taking a deep breath he announced that the new 2IC would be Gloria Freeman. He explained that she had provided most of the funds for the takeover and wanted to be hands-on as a result. That wasn’t what really floored the workforce, although it was totally unexpected given her previous invisibility around the place. What left them gobsmacked was that their new employer would also be marrying the woman. He added he was very happy to be announcing that. Jo later reflected that she had a good radar for what was going on behind the scenes in the company, but in all this she was completely blindsided. She had no notion what had been happening with he new boss and the wife of her old one. But, after the meeting, Jo duly marched up, gave Angus a hug and congratulated him on his good fortune.

By the time Den’s birthday rolled around, back in the day, Jo was all set. They had already been at Freeman’s together for well over six months. By now Den was driving down on his Ls with Jo beside him. He was a natural and would have no trouble getting his license, despite only having one complete leg to work with. When he achieved his Ps Jo took him out to celebrate after work at a pub. That meant wine for her but lemonade for him – as he would be driving her home under his own steam. They followed up with a counter meal before taking the trail up to Sheffield. Before Den left the car at his parent’s, Jo leaned across and kissed him on the cheek. Not satisfied with that, she then took his head in her hands, turned his head towards her and placed her lips on his. They way he enthusiastically responded she knew he was ready for her plans for his birthday.

After that initial kiss the two became inseparable – as they would remain from then on in. They started to have lunch together in the canteen instead of Den talking shop with the other grease-monkeys. She visited him at her parents; he was a constant at the dinner table of hers. Her mum was a sole parent, hubby having done a John Freeman years beforehand. She loved it that Jo had someone who obviously cared for her daughter as much as she did. And in the midst of all this had been Den’s very best day – or should I say night.

*****

The letter came as a surprise. Nobody had heard from John, to the best of their knowledge, for years. – and here, suddenly, was a missive to both of them. They read it – then reread it several times to let it all sink in.

Ultimately there was sadness, given his wife Yuko’s covering note informing them of John and her son’s passing. Jo, particularly, felt some pleasure that he had found happiness in his last years. She resolved that she would write back to Yuko. There was no return address, but with the information that the letter contained it was easy enough to track down.

*****

A birthday is usually a best day, but turning nineteen – well Den couldn’t image anything bettering what happened in the aftermath. Jo gave him the best present she possibly could. She was strictly no virgin but, by the same token, as she never felt love for any of the men who had bedded her to date, she felt she may as well have been. She couldn’t hardly remember a single name. Nothing in her own sexual history, therefore, was particularly earth-shattering, but she was going to damn well make sure that was about to change with, perhaps some would say, the unlikeliness of partners. True, Denny had come a long way in a short time, but, as yet, he was still very insecure in so many ways. Despite him making a start, he was still tentative around her, despite that first kiss, never initiating anything. She did all the heavy lifting, so to speak. Now she was determined that she was going to take their relationship to the next level and she also knew, with a woman’s intuition, that he wanted it as much as she was prepared to give it to him.

For Den’s part, he was totally oblivious to her plans. After a particularly heated session, up a forestry track in her car, he ventured forth that he was desperate that they make love together at some point in time. He said he’d like that very much, but with his usual reticence, he hastened to add that there was no rush. He knew he wouldn’t be her first and was still in the dark about the finer points of going about it. She said she would like it to happen too – but she wanted it to be special. Could he wait a little longer. Could he what? She told him, then and there, that she loved him and although he would not be her first, nobody else had been her lover. She wanted him to be that to her – therefore she could wait for the perfect occasion for their first time together. He was more than happy with that. He was ecstatic. He also knew there’d be nothing to fear with her. He’d be in safe hands.

After the birthday meal she shouted him at the restaurant over looking the Bluff Beach in Devonport they left for the car. She whispered to him that tomorrow morning he’d no longer be a virgin. He looked at her gobsmacked – then his face became awash with joy. She took him to the hotel she’d booked, the best their little city could muster. And she was correct in her prediction.

As the sun came up Den couldn’t wipe the smile from his mug as he watched her emerge from her slumber. They embraced, she reached down and they made love again. This time their warm bodies pressed together as if they had all the time in the world – which, of course, they did. ‘There,’ she said after they had finished, ‘I told the second time would be even better. You might not have been the first in there, but you’re the first to make me come, you beautiful man.’ And right then; right at that moment, Den knew what he had become – a man – and he hadn’t stuffed up. She took his head again in her hands, kissed him long and deep. ‘You are my first lover. I want you to be my only lover.’ Yep, truly, the best of all possible days.

The previous night was an eye-opener. Den saw a woman’s naked body for the first time in the real world. And she was magnificent – her breasts, finally freed, were a feast for his eyes. She guided his fingers and mouth to all the right places for her and finally took him into a warm and wonderful place. It was so exciting he quickly imploded. ‘Was that all right?’ he asked. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘but I betcha tomorrow it will be though. And every time after that.’

They would go on to marry and happily work together in John Freeman’s enterprise. Much later on Jo became quite the correspondent to her former boss’ de facto, Yuko. When the time came to embark on their grand expedition up the Bruce Highway they had a week set aside to spend some time with Yuko.

And there, with another letter, Jo and Den became privy to something as beautiful as it was intimate. It was a love letter from their former beloved boss to the exotic woman who turned his life around. Yuko had seen something in her guests’ devotion to each other and felt compelled to share the letter with them. She gave a copy to the wife with permission to show it to her own beloved fella. And share it with him she did.

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