I was unable to perform my deckie duties recently. I wasn't even there when Old Salt set nets the night before. I told him I may be late. We've had plenty of conversations about me being late. But this time I was really late, by about twenty four hours.
Grievous' Bro was standing by the fire a week or so later and laughing about the debacle.
"Oh yeah, I had one of those deckies who could never turn up on time on Saturday mornings."
Old Salt looked at me. "We've always had a problem with Saturday mornings, haven't we Toa?"
"I'd ask him on Fridays," Said Bro, "'you goin' to the pub tonight?' Nah, nah, he'd say. The next day I'd be waiting at the boat ramp at seven for him. By seven thirty, I'd have to drive around to his house and wake him up."
"Seven?" I said. "Seven is a completely respectable hour. Who can't make it to a boat ramp by seven? Now, four thirty on a Saturday morning is a different matter."
Old Salt groaned his eyes at me.
"Well. Fuck. Four thirty. C'mon Old Salt. It's not always achievable. It means three thirty out of bed, after sitting with my mates playing guitars around a fire til one in the morning, me as happy as Pearlie with a cheese stick."
"Yeah, I always hated the summer crab season around you social butterflies," he said.
On this occasion I was so late that Old Salt had to pick up the nets on his own. He sent me a text: "Eight boxes." Damn. The last time he caught that much, I was safely ensconced on Breaksea Island. He's never caught that many fish when I'm around. At this point my superstitious mind started entertaining the banana skins and women thing.
I met him at the Manypeaks road house. He was sleeping in his car when I pulled over. I showed him my bruises as evidence but he was having none of it.
"Can you get rid of fifty kilos of unwanted bream?" he asked me.
"Ah well. You know, last night the caravan went up on three wheels in the storm. This mornin', I was trying to pick up and I nearly rolled the boat in the wind. I had to tie the net onto the bow and pick up the rest, fish and all. Grievous' Bro saw me come in. He asked if I needed help picking up the second net. I said no, of course, but he insisted."
He then helped Old Salt unmesh and pack his eight boxes. At some stage, Unruly turned up too.
"You owe them both a slab," Old Salt told me.
I dropped off a carton of beer to Unruly's shack last week. It was a surreptitious operation; driving into the shacklands through the paperbarks and deep puddles at an hour when I knew Grievous' Bro and Unruly wouldn't be around to refuse me. I pulled into the clearing where their shack stood among the mallees and burned out car wrecks. They have a fireplace crafted from a truck's brake drums and there is a tent, a cooker, some wire beds. I placed the carton on the bush kitchen bench and left.
Unruly and Bro acknowledged my contribution with a late morning out on the inlet. Later as they were chopping ice and packing fish into boxes on the shore, I wandered down to say thank you, for saving Old Salt in his moment of need (and probably his life) but they both looked at me like I was some kind of blowfly, nodded and went back to their work. They didn't see their heroism as anything other than ordinary behaviour and I wonder if they found my gratitude necessary.
It's a code that I'm still unsure of how to navigate. "Fishermen don't ever ask for help," Old Salt told me once, after I'd hailed down Nails for a tow when the outboard had failed and a squall had blown us over to Irwins Island. "And if anybody offers, refuse them. But always step up when yer needed."
How do you work that one out? And can I renegotiate this code anyway, being a fisherwoman?
Anyway, the irony of my absence on this latest occasion was that, instead of getting sacked for a no show, I'd proved myself indispensable. But there was still a price. Old Salt said, "These guys. They are the best blokes I've worked with for twenny years. I want you to put on a feed for them at the end of the season. We'll invite them over to our camp for the night. Give them a feed. Whaddaya reckon? Some cubes of cheese and pineapple on tooth picks. I know you don't like Spam, Sarah, but they do. So cut them up some Spam, yeah? Maybe some biccies too."