This morning I was six minutes late to launch the boat and pick up the black bream nets. The phone rang on the last stretch to the boat ramp and I ignored it because I knew it was Old Salt hurrying me up. I backed the boat trailer down the ramp and watched in the lights of the rear view as he messed around with the ropes and winch. Then, after dumping the boat into the black pre-dawn water, I drove up into the carpark.
I was just zipping up my wet weather gear when I was surrounded with police cars.
At six in the morning and boat ramping, I did a stumbling mental inventory: trailer lights? Check. Current car and driver's licence? Check. Have I done anything BAD lately? Um .... No. Check.
They leapt out of their cars. "We've got a situation," said one policeman. "There's a bloke out there." He pointed out to the sea grass banks where a solitary figure stood like a stump in the middle of the harbour, his shouting and screaming spreading across the water. "He's going off. Can you see him?"
"We need you to take us out there and get him in."
Suddenly my projection of a morning of pulling in nets, watching the sun rise and whingeing about a dearth of black bream began to look pretty ordinary.
"Does he actually want to come in?"
They looked at me.
"Okay. You'll have to ask Old Salt. He's the skipper. He's the man to decide whether or not you drag a crazy guy into his boat."
The policemen walked out to the boat to talk to Old Salt.
They came back to me. "This man may not want to come in. He could have a gun. There may be a bit of a struggle. You might get wet."
Old Salt and I both looked at the coppers.
"We try very, very hard not to get wet," said Old Salt.
"Not getting wet is the most important part of our whole operation," I said.
Everyone began to look uncertain. Then Old Salt asked the question that changed the course of the morning. "What's his name?"
"Peter Jackson? Aunty Jack?" I said.
"Do you know him? How do you know him"? The coppers turned their alpha-male-on-the-job glare on me.
"I went to school with him. He's nice."
I walked around in circles for a while. Aunty Jack has always been a gentle soul, even when off his meds. I walked back up the jetty to the boat and the tight cluster of uniforms. "How about I go out and pick him up?"
"Yeah, we'll go out there and ask him if he wants a ride back. If he says no, or we have trouble, we'll come back and get you."
The police were all wired up to requisition the boat, which would have been funny because that two stroke is a passive-aggressive fucker and that is before Old Salt gets hold of the tiller. Plus, uniforms in a commercial fishing boat give it a whole new look. Plus I knew their shift finished in an hour and their boots were still dry. I could see all this stuff ticking over in their collective minds too and then they looked to me and gave me the nod.
"He's not in any trouble. We just want to get him to hospital," said the policeman Bird. "Let him know that."
Old Salt fired up the two stroke and we roared out to the bank. As we got closer, he had to lift the motor so we could get onto the shallow grounds of harbour. The man who stood waist height in the water was a stranger. Far out, I thought, We are picking up someone I don't recognise after all. I don't know what I am getting into here. Ooo -wee.
Finally, I realised it was him.
"Aunty Jack! Aunty Jack!" I called. "Do you want a ride?"
His face was a skull with huge black holes for eyes. He looked like he hadn't slept for a fortnight. His long hair dangled in wet brown strands. I reckoned he'd been in the water for a while and was probably hypothermic.
When he recognised me he seemed to get higher out of the water and his eyes got even darker.
I didn't know whether my name was welcome or curse.
"Just get in."
"I saw you on the school bus."
"They shot my mother."
"Jump in the boat, Aunty Jack. C'mon."
He climbed into the boat in a quick move, straight over the gunwale. Son of a fisherman, he sat on the thwart and I wrapped smelly shade cloth around his shoulders.
"Can you take me over to Emu Point?"
"We're going in just over there," I pointed at the boat ramp.
"The cops'll shoot me, Sarah. Take me to Emu Point. They've bin taking pot shots at me all night."
"We'll look after you, mate," Old Salt said. "Just hang tight. If they make any trouble, we'll take you out and make you pick up our nets."
"They'll kill me."
"They killed me Mum."
"Yer Mum's alright, mate. I heard. She's okay."
The conversation went on like this until we pulled into the jetty. The police had drawn their cars behind my ute, so their lights were just showing over the bonnet. Being used to Fisheries ambushes, my antenna was truly buzzing when the paddy wagon wasped into the car park. I didn't know what Aunty Jack was going to do but when I looked at him, he sat huddled into the shade cloth and seemed cold and blue and tired.
"We'll stay here and keep an eye out for yer, mate," said Old Salt. "We'll make sure you are alright."
"I'm really scared," he said.
Aunty Jack climbed onto the jetty. He was missing a shoe and his clothes were torn up and wet. He shambled along to where the policeman Bird stood waiting on the red gravel. Bird put his hand on Aunty Jack's shoulder, quite gently, and the other constable sauntered, alert. At the paddy wagon, policemen and women patted him down. Then they stuffed him into the white plastic capsule, slammed shut the hatch and drove him away as the sun rose over the hills.