Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Mountain Man, the Fugitive and the Whales

"Pick up any hitch hikers lately?" Old Salt asked me when I arrived at the inlet.
It didn't help that Nick Cave's Murder Ballads had been on repeat for the long drive. I'd also passed three police cars on the highway east and that made the road unusual and slightly fraught. The Bad Seeds carrying on about general human nastiness only made me jumpier.
Old Salt told me that a fugitive from Perth was on the loose in these parts. He'd escaped police custody in a town near the inlet and had taken to the bush. They'd put out the planes and dogs after him. "He's without his meds," Old Salt said, looking at me meaningfully. "Better keep the cars locked up."

To make things more interesting, Mountain Man has moved back to his perch right next to the only toilet in the isolated fishing camp. His setup of a ute and mini caravan would be sweet if he didn't swathe the whole circus in a shambolic mess of white canvas. Last time he was here it was the same. At first I thought he was drying out his annexe but it was sunny for days. His camp shines white through the trees from every angle on the point. But my main beef is that he's a shouter and he completely freaks me out.

Last time he was camped here, he shouted at me at 5.30 in the morning when I was bumbling up to the loo. I got yelled at to go and live in the Tanami if I wanted to wander about with my fucking dog. I thought then that he'd be better off in the Tanami Desert, or as far away from me as possible, or least a bit further away from the only available toilet if he really wanted to do a Greta Garbo.

So this time around after we set nets in the evening, I sat on the toilet and could not persuade any of my bodily functions to function. Why? Because it was getting dark and I cannot leisurely eliminate when someone is yelling next to the corrugated iron wall, "Told you not to put yer fucken nose in there you fucken cunt of a thing put yer nose in the fly net mosquito net if you put yer fucken nose in there again I'm gonna get fucken mosquitos biting me and I'm gonna fucken flog yer you hear that I'll fucken hit yer I'm sick of it I've had enough of the lot of yer, yer fucken cunts ..."

I rarely see the Mountain Man. Even when he yells at me, he keeps out of sight. I may see his thin neck and his head crowned with a colourless beanie peering at me from the windows of his car, or I may see a wisp of smoke from his camp fire behind his car, or the pointed ears of his long suffering yellow-eyed cur dog.

I sat on the toilet with no door, completely unable to piss whilst the Mountain Man continued his rant.
I studied the signs written in black Artline on the toilet wall.
(It's a complete failure of a compost dunny and is filling up at a rather alarming rate.)
I gave up. He was still shouting. I watched for his shadow in the doorway, saw it was clear and walked out, avoiding looking towards his camp. Don't make eye contact. Don't make eye contact.
Then I realised I'd forgotten to shut the lid.

Back at our fire, I said to Unruly and Old Salt, "I think I'd prefer to die of fecal impaction before I use that dunny again."
Old Salt snorted, "Yeah, it's fillin' up, girl."
"Not, it's the Mountain Man, he scares the crap out of me. Well, actually my crap's too scared to come out while he's yellin' at me."
"He's yellin' at his dog," said Unruly.
"Oh. Well. He's creepy."
"He's pretty harmless," said Unruly kindly. "Just took too many trips when he was young. Lives around all these beaches, he does. He was at Bremer last week. Or maybe Normans. He won't hurt ya."

When I unzipped my tent door that night, I shone the torch around before I stepped in.

In the morning an early nor-westerly struck up a tune on the water while I picked out the undersize crabs from the net and shook out the coral. Old Salt backed along the net into the wind, keeping the propeller off the cork lines. He tried cracking a few jokes but was getting the silent treatment from me because of his abhorrent behaviour the previous week. (Nothing funny, windswept or interesting to say about Old Salt today - you know when perceived grievances turn a sane person into a paranoid dictator who then manipulates the truth of the situation to justify their behaviour in a really ordinary form of temporary sociopathy? Okay. Sorry. Enough already. Rant over.)

I dug a bush toilet for myself in a nice quiet non shouting space. Later, when I was packing the bream into boxes and icing them down, the radio announcer said that they still hadn't caught the fugitive. He repeated that the man didn't have his medication.
At least I can live through and beyond Old Salt's tantrums, I thought then. Relatively benign they are, compared to today's climate.

At the shop, fifty kilometres away, I bought some fuel for the boat and the woman at the counter volunteered a photocopied A4 picture of the runaway prisoner. He didn't look like the fugitive from Great Expectations. He wasn't whiskered and gnarly with bad teeth and nasty eyes and a pocked nose. He was a nice looking young man, slim, pleasant, even given the police ID board he held in front of his chest - from another police station to the one where cops had botched his latest arrest.
"But apparently his hair is shorter now," she said. "And he's wearing shorts and a T shirt."
We were both quiet for a moment and then she said, "Poor bugger. I hope he's okay. It was really cold last night."

He didn't look anything like what I'd seen of the Mountain Man but that wasn't much of a relief  because it meant there were two freaked out folk wandering around. The inlet is a good place to slide like a needle into the veins of country and never be seen again ... except by people like us living there.

Before dawn the next day, I lay in my tent listening to the swans and the ducks and the grebes awaking. Then there was a new sound ...
A trumpeting, a blow like someone breathing through an amplified didgeridoo, then the slapping of huge wads of flesh and skin against the skin of the sea.
The whales. The whales are back.

I was climbing into my wet weather gear, struggling to fit the plastic pants over my boots, when a silvery grey four wheel drive cruised past all kinda sharky, no lights in the gloom before the sun. They drove onto the beach, turned around and went past our camp again. Plain clothes, looking for an escapee, I thought. Maybe. No doubt. Cops.

Old Salt turned on the radio. The fugitive had handed himself into a farmer last night. He'd been taken to hospital. Mountain Man had finally quit his hollering too.

The whales. I could hear them from where I stood at the point drinking my coffee, looking out to the sand bar. I couldn't see them but the dawn air was so still that I heard them like they were right in front of me. They sang for hours this morning. Ten or fifteen whales, breathing the story of their return from Antarctica.


  1. That gave me a pit in my stomach...both Mountain Man shouting and the fugitive...then a sense of relief when you told of the beauty of the whales song.

  2. Good Raz. Whale songs are so much nicer then getting shouted at. Makes it all worth it. :) Thanks.

  3. Just loved the thought of the whales out there Sarah, made me forget about those troubled men. It is amazing when the night air has that quality that sounds seem so close.

  4. It was so lovely to hear them, Janine. So close. I hope that the 'fugitive' and MM heard them on their travels.

  5. Great story - the whales the only sane constant. It's hard to figure why many people are more scared of nature than humanity.

    One of my prison students has been an escapee. He was on a TV documentary, initially touted as 'desparate' and 'dangerous'. When they interviewed the cops at the end of the doco they said 'Aw, he's alright really. Just someone who's made some bad choices'. It's true - he is one of the nicest and most intelligent guys in there. That's not to say they are all like that.

  6. The whales the only sane constant? What about me? Mind you I was feeling loopy loopy by the time the whales came!
    That's a really nice anecdote too.

  7. Sorry, I didn't think to include you in the sane group ST - not that I think you are insane.

  8. Sarah, I love your tales. So real. So earthy. I love the way you write!