I hadn’t seen the fisherwoman Ms Mer since Salt Story was published and, before that, a quick visit so she could check over the two chapters that I’d written about her in my book. (“Change that bit about my deckie deserting me,” she’d said. “I don’t want to offend him and I may need him later.”)
This evening I heard a four wheel drive on the bottom track near the beach and I looked out the window to see two figures in waders. They walked down to the water and I heard an outboard start up. They motored slowly past the rocks and then throttled it. Commercials, I thought. Folk who know the place. Sparse conversation, no fucking about, just get in the boat and go.
The no-nonsense nature of their departure made me wander down to the Landcruiser to check out the name on their fish bins. Lots of people launch here but commercial fishers have to imprint their name on the ice boxes and plastic boxes they send to the markets, so it’s a bit of a cultural thing to see how many boxes a certain fisher has at the truck depot, or on the back of their utes.
This ute had only two boxes, which meant they were probably trying out their luck … early days at the inlet since the bar broke. And the name on the bin lids was Ms Mer! Excellent. She is legend in these parts. I went home to light the fire, cook up some dinner, all the while listening for her return.
When she came in, the dog and I were waiting on the rocks. A man got out of the boat in the shallows and tied it to a stake. Ms Mer climbed over the stern and lifted the motor. She looked at the man’s knot. “That looks like a deckie’s knot to me,” she said.
Then she saw me standing on the rocks, watching. “Well,” she said. “The people you see when you don’t have a gun. What are you doing here?”
Maybe this is a standard greeting. I wasn’t sure. I haven’t been greeted in this way before and so I was thinking ‘well she did read the proofs’ so I can strike that one out, before freaking out about some terrible havoc I’d unknowingly wreaked. Then she was standing in front of me in her waders, beanie and her orange waterproofs, her clear blue eyes laughing at me, and I realised she’s of the same ilk as Old Salt; a piss-taker from way back.
“The wild woman of Borneo. I heard you were out this way,” she said.
“Yes, I’m living here.”
“I heard that. This is Ken, my deckie,” she nudged Ken who came forward to shake my hand.
“Would you like to come up for a cuppa?” I asked them.
“Thanks but nah, we’ve gotta get back. Why don’t you come to the hut and meet Shirl, Ken’s wife? She’s the one who said someone was living in the house … oh here she is …”
A woman walked out of the bush with a piebald fox terrier on a leash.
“Shirl, this is Sarah. You know that day you spotted someone living in the house? Well that was Sarah.”
“Oh, that was the day I got tangled up in a snake.” Shirl looked meaningfully at her husband. “Before the bar broke. Wrapped itself around my ankles in a figure of eight and I didn’t even know it was taking bites at me. Tracky pants. Didn’t know it was there until Ken told me to stop walking.”
“Oh my God!” I crossed my legs and sort of curtsied away from the group.
That’s what a good snake story does to me.
“I know,” said Ms Mer. “I’ve been having nightmares about it ever since.”
“Figure of eight around her legs it was,” said Ken.
“What did you do?” I asked Shirl.
“Oh, I just stepped back and let it go away,” she said. “Snakes don’t bother me.”
“Snakes really bother me.”
“And me,” said Ms Mer.
“Well, tiger snakes, they are different,” said Shirl, “but this was a dugite, he musta been four foot long. They are slow this time of year and they usually just want to get away from you.”
I walked with Shirl and our two dogs to Ms Mer’s hut. I was thinking about snakes. Shirl pointed out orchids. We pulled the dogs away from the track as Ms Mer and Ken grumbled by in the Cruiser.
I had the privilege today of seeing the inside of a truly beautiful fisherwoman’s hut. The brake drum fire place throwing warmth. The ornate pressed tin walls. The checker board lino flecked with gold. A freshly blacked Metters #5. The red and green vinyl chairs stuffed with horsehair and flock. Two bedrooms with neat piles of folded clothes at each bed end. A board of cheese, homemade salami, crackers and dip.
In the morning Ms Mer and her deckie pulled up the whiting nets, to see what was in the inlet after the bar broke. Ms Mer gave me half a dozen yellow-eye mullet, or what the old people call ‘pilchers’. Yum.