We drank spiced rum. At some point on any night when I’m drinking spiced rum, I say, ‘let’s go out in the boat. The best time out on the water is at night.’
There are few people who will get in a boat with me after drinking half a bottle of rum. I reckon about three. Oh, and Old Salt, but he doesn’t count because he mentored this practice in the first place.
Getting into a riveted aluminium tinny with oars in less than three feet of water with a rum-sodden Toa is not a terribly dangerous exercise anyway, so I picked up our bottle by its pirate handle and we headed for the shore. We turned over the boat, dragged her into the warm water, fitted the oars and rowed into the inlet.
‘Water gets to twenty degrees,’ a meadow man said to me recently, ‘and that’s when you see phosphorescence.’ And it was Fantasia that Saturday night. The oars dripping wild arcs through the inlet, the dogs’ paws illuminated as they swam beside the boat. A wake of glittering fire critters … every move we made was laden with magic.
For a while we were marooned upon a rock and still I rowed because the colours were so beautiful and trippy. Also I wasn’t entirely aware that we were actually perched upon a rock. On the shore, he fell out of the boat while disembarking, which was hilarious because it is usually me who does this. We stamped and danced around in the warm water with punk/ballet moves in the holes made by feeding swans, kicking up the water for more sparkles, the stars all above us and all below.
The fingernail moon had well set by then.
Sunday: I drove to Albany. It was an eerie, beautiful drive through the karri forests, warm slants of light through the trees, smoke everywhere from the burn-offs and bushfires that have been going for weeks. Further north, two days before, a wild fire had razed an entire town in seven minutes. I drove out of the forest and into high, open pastured country. On a long curve of the road I came across a police car and an ambulance. Some motorcyclists stood by their bikes, holding their helmets in their hands. A copper walked a steady trajectory from the road and along the gravel verge, to a marri tree. Everyone looked a bit blank, stunned. The ambulance was staying put, no lights.
Shit… oh shit, I thought, and kept driving, because there seemed no point in stopping.
Monday: At about nine in the morning, I received an email to say that two examiners were in and they’d passed my thesis outright, with some minor recommendations for changes. Two out of three ticks means I passed my PhD! That is Doctor Sarah Toa to you, thank you very much. It is still quite unofficial and I have a bit of work to do, but it gave me a real warm fuzzy as I headed into a week of teaching historical fiction. (Which was why I drove from Broke to Albany, right, to spend a week teaching writers how to turn ripping yarns from history into fiction.)
I gave the first class and a lunch time lecture on the Breaksea Island sealing community of 1826. The whole time my head was zinging with ‘The powers that be have granted me a PhD!’
Champagne. I won’t even mention the brand I bought but their ads generally depict beautiful young women laughing and being showered in what looks suspiciously like semen.
Tuesday: Presented another lecture and a class on history and fiction.
‘The Unspoken: Negative Spaces in History’
My sister messaged me. ‘I have bad news, I’m sorry to text you this but Mick has died. He hit a tree on his motorbike near Nornalup. Can you please ring me?’
I rang her.
‘I passed an accident,’ I said. ‘Mum did too. She was coming from Denmark. I was coming from Walpole. I kept driving. Was that really Mick? I saw a motorbike but it was green. Mick’s motorbike wasn’t green, was it? Was it green?’
‘That was his mate Xxxx’s bike,’ she said. ‘I think he was riding with him that day.’
As I had driven by on my way to Albany, I didn’t see Mick’s bike or his body, though I must have passed pretty soon after it happened. Mum saw a body bag. Someone else on the road saw his body lying beside his bike. I dunno. I don’t know. All that I do know is that I didn’t know I drove past a dead friend on the side of the road last Sunday.
Wednesday: presented a lecture and another class on history and fiction. ‘The bolts in Jaws’ teeth: beautiful lies, plot arcs and incontrovertible facts.’ Jaws’ teeth alluded to the unsigned contract that the reader agrees to with the writer … that their suspension of disbelief is a fair swap for escaping the drudgery of their everyday lives … but if for example, when watching the movie Jaws, the watcher sees the bolts holding the robot shark’s teeth together, then that contract is screwed. Even in fiction, there are some ‘facts’ that the writer must get right. That’s my theory anyway.
Thursday: I think I can pass Thursday and Friday except to say that the week’s workshop went well and I was told I was a ‘breath of fresh air’. I also spent a beautiful evening under the stars at Limeburners in a swag and slept, deeply and peacefully for a few hours before driving back into town in the witching, sated and thinking, I love that, that fugue time, it’s like a dream, like it didn’t even happen, except for that it did. Good juice was coursing all through my being.
Saturday: Loaded up the van (I was using Mum’s purple hippy van all week, as my four wheel drive ute was supposed to be getting fixed in the ‘Pole by the star local mechanic, who ended up in Albany all week, getting fixed himself) with spare beehive frames and drove 350 km to my shack at Kundip to rob hives. My beekeeper mate Ky was feeling ill so I went alone.
I arrived at midday to this:
Someone’s been pinching stuff from my shack over the last year. The last time they politely unscrewed the padlocked bolt, emptied the spare beehive frames from the plastic boxes and took the plastic boxes. (Why? They are often on special for five bucks for fuck’s sake.) So I screwed the bolt back in and left it unlocked, thinking I’d prefer thieves to walk in than break a window.
This time the door was ripped off its hinges and left in pieces on the threshold. Because that’s what you do, right? If a door to an isolated shack is unlocked, then you rip the door off its hinges and break it into little bits. If you are feeling especially cunty, you may even take the owner’s favourite bucket and her fire twirling stick.
It felt a bit like walking into the chookpen the morning after a fox visitation.
Anyhoo, I collected my seventh generation Toa parsley seeds, ate hommos and crackers for lunch and steeled myself to thieve honey from the bees. I parked the van up the hill so that Selkie could hide. Black and tan she is, and to a bee she looks just like their natural predator, a bear. She’s a clever dog who’s learned quickly to stay the hell away from me as soon as I put on my space suit.
The hippies at hive #4 was the mother lode, as usual. So beautiful, hardworking and gentle, that mob. Every frame full and perfectly capped. Hive #2 is still being run by the Tyrant Queen. They flew at me. They hit me! Bam Bam Bam! Loads of honey and they never want to give it up.
I love my bee suit.
By two o’clock I was exhausted. Full boxes of honey must weigh an unwieldy thirty kilos and then there is the mid-to-high-level stress of dealing with the rising hum of 20K pissed off individuals, and a smoker that keeps going out. Two more hives to go. I sat down, peeled back the veil and drank a litre of cranberry juice and then a litre of water. Smoked a rollie. Contemplated my shack door. Wondered about my attitude. Took all of the things I didn’t want pinched and put them in Mum’s van: a crow bar and the rib bones of a whale.
I was stung a few times through my suit and gloves (sometimes my gloves are covered in beestings, poor buggers. They die for nothing after leaving their stings in my leather gloves.) When they sting me through my suit not all of their poison gets through and it feels more like a mosquito bite.
But when I was finished with my larceny, I took off my suit and prepared for the drive back to Albany. And that’s when they got me.
The rainwater at Kundip is the cleanest, sweetest water in the world. Truth. The bees know that too because as I was filling my water bottles, dressed in a singlet and jeans, I got hammered. All of my joints (shoulders, wrists, elbows, ankles), my glands (beneath my ear lobes, my throat, back of my knees), oh yes, they got me. I spent two days feeling so toxed. I had enough poison in my veins to blow up the neighbour’s crack house, and that is saying something.
The next day I could hardly move.
I bought an instant coffee in Ravensthorpe. It was dusk. The roadhouse worker gave me the remnants for Selkie, who wolfed down chico rolls, pies and deep fried lasagne in the car park. I took one sip of the coffee and asked her to add another teaspoonful of the Maxwell House. Please.
One hundred kilometres along the highway I saw the first roo, a doe with her joey, hesitating on the verge, the mother wondering whether to cross. I beeped the horn and both of them reeled away from the road. Five minutes later another kangaroo leapt straight in front of the van.
I haven’t hit an animal in a car before; only birds: owls, pigeons and, oh yes sorry, quite a few rabbits. This was positively visceral. I saw the kangaroo lurch into my headlights. That shudder of impact, feeling the wheels struggle over his flesh and bone. I say ‘his’ because when I pulled up and reversed, a young buck was lying on the gravel. I saw his balls. He was all broken bones and panting. It was awful. I thought, okay, a rock or a stick, or something. I looked in the bush for a rock. My headlamp was dimming, running out of batteries. Then I remembered the crow bar I’d salvaged from Kundip. After the violence of a purple Mitsubishi van and a crowbar, I felt between the kangaroo’s forearms and ribs for a heartbeat. Nothing. So I cut off his tail and took it home for dinner.
Sunday: Extracted honey. 40 kg from the hippy hive #4, so far.
On Sunday I learned how to extract the sinew from kangaroo tails. It's amazing stuff, as strong as nylon fishing line. I also skinned the tail, salted it and put it in my mate’s fridge.
Monday: Drove back to the ‘Pole. It’s a busy tourist road at the moment. I got towards the accident site, slowing down, hesitating in the purple van and could feel the angsty tourists or locals behind me as I slowed on that high country curve, indicator flicking.
Then I hauled the van over onto the side of the road. I could see the coppers’ yellow marks. They began at the front of my van. I got out of the car and followed the yellow marks.
He'd hit the gravel and stayed on the verge for maybe fifty metres, then away he went, over the edge, airbourne, shattering a lump of laterite on his way down to the tree. A small tree. A small, hardy old man marri, (“such a small tree” said my sister) with a piece shorn off of one side where it met his body.
A clump of wild flowers bound in plastic, a can of VB, a note from a friend.
A fatal meeting.
I went straight to work at the fuel station/coffee shop and by then the rain had started; a deluge that went for days and bucketed down inches over a lot of the southwest. It was nearly dark as I drove home to the inlet, and frogs leapt across the road, strips of karri all over the Broke track.