Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Interview With a Fisherwoman

I drove out to meet a fisherwoman on a day when gales and hailstones battered the whole south west of the continent.
"Tray back Landcruiser. White." She said she would meet me by the caretakers shed. I drove along puddled gravel roads, past the colourful weatherboard fishing shacks that squatted side by side like uncertain teenagers, until I found her.
"It's the wild woman of Borneo!" she said, leaning out of the ute and taking off her black wraparound sunnies. I could have returned the compliment. Ms Mer was older than she sounded on the phone. Her hair shone snow white from beneath her beannie but her eyes were clear, pure blue like a sun-glad sea. She'd spent so many years at sea that her irises could have been made of the stuff but there was also a bit of steel in there and something else; a humanity, a steady reckoning, kindness.

We rumbled past more shacks. "They keep all us professionals out the back here, out of sight," she told me later. "Right at the end of the track. We have to keep all our gear out of sight too, in case it offends the reccies." She means the anglers, inland farmers or city dwellers, who lease shacks for their holidays. Solar panels perch on reccie roofs like raptors and hot water systems are wrapped in tarps to keep out the salt spray. They nail signs by their front door: Gone Fishin', To the Manor Prawn, Hideaway or Merv n Averil's Castle.

I was impressed by the lack of signage to Ms Mer's shack. That and the monster of a diesel Lister chugging away in the shed. "Gotta have it. There's no mains power out here. I need it to make ice." She makes block ice to keep the fish cool when she is out at sea for a few days. "Been through a few of those motors since 1971, three ... maybe four." 

Her garden was smooth beach stones and succulents. Long white socks hung in the garage next to her 'changing room', where all the fishers got out of their smelly gear. Up a carpeted ramp was the door to the house. She showed me into a large room with huge windows looking over the sand dunes and then the island out in blustering, choppy sea. Inside, armchairs were cowled in crocheted rugs. Shelves and shelves of books: hymn books, Lynda la Plant, more crime fiction, Australiana, Readers Digests, Hammond Innes. On the bookshelf was a yellowed photograph of her and a fellow nurse from the Vietnam War, grinning into the camera with urchin innocence, the Vietnamese child on the stretcher smiling too, swathed in bandages and sheets. 

The Everhot was firing and beneath it two lizards lolled on the warm tiles. A polished kettle hummed on the hot plate. She turned off the radio. "No good news anyway." Ticking clock. The roar and roar of that wild sea.
"Cuppa tea, coffee?"
"I'd love a coffee. Missed out this morning. I had no milk."
She sniffed when I said I wanted sugar. "Sugar!" She hunted around for some. "I don't have sugar in anything. Never have liked the stuff."

Ms Mer had made a barley mushroom soup, some coleslaw, pickled beetroot and plateful of crumbed herring morsels and she placed it all on the table along with bread and butter. Faded brown flowers spread over the table cloth. She sat down opposite me, the teabag still dangling from her cup, and fixed me with her blue eyes. She'd taken off her beannie and her white hair framed her like a pixie cap. "I hope you like the soup. You're not vegan or anything?"
"I'll eat anything. But especially herring."

"I'm not such a great cook," she shrugged and smiled.
"But this is lovely! It's a feast."
"You know, I never married. Got out of that one nicely, hey? Never a man who would cook and clean for me while I went fishing. I don't even really care about houses. Houses are just places where us guys sleep when we're not aboard a boat."

She showed me a photograph of a classic West Australian fishing boat, slung up on a lift, about to enter the water, surrounded by men in flannelette shirts. "That's my old boat. I sold her and bought the one I got now. That's just after I built her. Bond wood. Not a plank boat. Plank boats are a lot of work. When you get them out of the water every year, you gotta paint them, caulk them ..."
I started to tell her about the Pearl and then decided not to.


  1. just wonderful ST...transporting as ever :) getting the vibe that you may join said wild woman for further fishing adventures or is that just my wishful thinking?

  2. You have described: A strong woman who is worldly wise.

  3. Wonderful account, Sarah - fisherwomen unite! :-)

  4. Awesome Sarah. I look forward to hearing more about this woman.

  5. Thanks for your comments bloggers. There will be more stories of Ms Mer and yes WY, it is my wishful thinking too!

  6. This is such a stunning account of Ms Mer, Sarah. I came here after listening to your interview in the subsequent and marvel at the way your writing transforms the interview into something magical. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the interview but your writing about Ms Mer gave me so much for to imagine.

    Thanks, Sarah. You write with such power and imagery. It's wonderful.

  7. Thanks Elisabeth, (and sorry I keep misspelling your name, better now) That vid is not really an interview but a chat whilst watching those boats in the crazy weather. But the transposition is always fun, yes?

  8. Great writing Sarah. They're all good but this might be one of the better ones.

  9. Wow, what a piece! Hopefully there are more installments to come..
    And the shacks squatting like uncertain teenagers: what a perfect thought