Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Ship Song Project

The Ship Song Project - Sydney Opera House reinterprets Nick Cave's iconic song. Performed by Neil Finn, Kev Carmody and The Australian Ballet, Sarah Blasko, John Bell, Angus and Julia Stone, Paul Kelly and Bangarra Dance Theatre, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Opera Australia, Martha Wainwright, Katie Noonan and The Sydney Symphony, The Temper Trap, Daniel Johns and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Directed by Paul Goldman.
Arranged by Elliott Wheeler.
Photography by Prudence Upton.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nullabor Diaries

Dundas Rocks, Norseman
Clay salt pan. I could feel the warmth through the floor of the tent. A thin crust of shining salt and then slimy clay underneath and the Bedford up to her axels in the middle of the dried up lake.
What was I thinking?
Three hours after I drove across the lake, a parallel track eight metres long was plowed black into the pristine ice rink surface. Three hours it took to claw back eight metres. The sun was going down. The kids were wailing. The clay was hot underneath the thin layer of brittle salt. Emu tracks in the white sand where I went hunting for branches and traction. Round boulders atop another, an indigenous feel to the place. Good hunting, roaming place. Eve and still hot. Evening crickets chanted, different to the ones in Albany, a continuous teacher's whistle. Salmon gums creaked, limb against limb. I would be prone to dendrophilia among these trees, if I wasn't so fucking bogged.

I got up at 4.30 and brewed some coffee, saw the sunrise over the salt lake and went out to collect some more brush to put under the car. 8 am. Still bogged. We flagged down an elderly Kalgoorlie man with a hangover. He was moving to Esperance because of a woman. He took us into Norseman where Barry, tougher and older than old boots, offered to tow us out. Barry had lived in Norseman for 51 years and hated the sea. He pulled the Bedford out of the clay pan, berated me proper, shook my hand and drove away.

Balladonia Roadhouse
The crows were still there. Last time, hitch hiking with a twitchy, ferrety truckie the flies went straight for my nose and mouth. The heat was horrific. Crows hopped about, dusty and opportunistic. A tiny car pulled up and four skinheads fell out, drunk as lords, black eyes, bleeding. Until I returned to this place those skinheads and the crows represented Balladonia to me. This time around, Balladonia was positively Camelot but the crows and the flies were still there.

Bits of Skylab and cameleers and settlers and the Old People. I was thinking about that. The black woman sat near the waterhole. Just sat. Normally she would have a bag of seeds and she'd grind them up on a stone while she chatted and laughed with the other women, grind the seeds into powder, mix it into a paste, light a fire, make some tucker with careful, long fingers. The seed mixture would clean out her system, nourish her, spread through her like life itself. Today, she got some chips and a coke and she doesn't need her dilly bag. So she just sat and looked at the water.

The wedgetails are like the lions of the Nullabor and the crows its hyenas.

Caiguna Roadhouse
Truckies sat outside in the lights and setting sun, smoking.
A blonde woman in a fur coat filled her F100 ex-ambulance with fuel. Same vintage as the Bedford. Her daughter hovered, a fairy in pink. Trucks thundered by making the ground shudder and splitting the night in half with their lights.
The road was bleeding with dead and desiccated kangaroos and bones bleached in the sun and strips of black rubber and wheels and wheel rims and rubbish and pallets and emu carcasses.

Cocklebiddy had wedgetails everywhere. A good humoured place with a bunch of fat, wild looking truckies sitting out the front. Then Eucla and that magnificent rise up over the sea and ultramarine blue of the ocean and white lime sand. A border town with a cheerful ocker officialdom. You are now in South Australia. Nullabor Plain. An expanse of blue smokebush meets the sky, red earth and the odd surprise of a good green.

Truck drivers eyed me off. Dark. Wild hair. Thongs. Stubbie shorts. Same uniform. Sometimes their legs were really dirty. One followed me around the shop at Yalata.
"So where ya goin'? Byron?
You know people there?
Was that you behind me?"
"You're my roo bar for the day," I said. I like sitting behind on trucks. Let them hit the kangaroos. Their slipstream also absorbed some of the impact of the passing roadtrains that shuddered my van.

The girl in the F100 looked tireder at every roadhouse. Her son, about twelve, filled the car with fuel,  cranky. Her daughter the fairy played with one of their dogs on the concrete. Their other dog was approached cautiously by a dingo in the carpark. I saw the yellow sticker on the windscreen.

The truckie had puffy eyelids and slits for eyes. He was unusually clean and his eyebrows gave his face a mean look.
"Nice meeting you," I said as a goodbye.
"Don't expect me to change a tyre for you when you get a flat, darlin'."

 A collective morbid they were, the crows, conferring in the middle of the road around mounds of kangaroo. The stretch from Balladonia to Cocklebiddy was carnage, blood all over the road. A dead roo every fifty metres. A big buck slouched on the road reserve, his legs broken, watching the traffic pass almost nonchalantly. Wedgetails posed on singular trees. They were magnificent. When standing, they were hip height to an adult. Their bodies were streamlined, ready for flight, long legs, cruel talons. They hung in the air in pairs. We stopped by a smashed caravan. The chassis was gone, just the windows and twisted aluminum, a toothpaste tube, cups, underwear, and sprawled across the smokebush, flowered curtains.

There was something apocalyptic about that highway that never bends. All that blood and eagles tearing at excoriated flesh ... the way the dead kangaroos lay with their paws clasped like hands across their chests, in prayer.

A sign at Cocklebiddy roadhouse says, "In God we trust. Everyone else must pay cash." The counter was manned by a gnarled character with a long, strawberry blonde beard and cracks in his face as deep as my thumb. I ran out of money there.

Friday, December 16, 2011

4.45 am

The heft of rope. Wind blowing the boat off the nets and straining the corkline. I'm glad for gloves on windy mornings. Pelicans gather, diving their beaks into the sea to tear herring out of the net but shake their heads at the baby rays, tossed back pink and black. Silver gleam. Tailor? Mulloway? Mulloway. A tugging on the corkline and a tangle of stingray and mesh over the gunwale. The smell of flowers from across the harbour. Pull the net across the water against the wind. Salt spray. Start the outboard and go ahead to ease the strain and stop the net from furling. Long fronds of weed with butterflied cockles for anchors. Hair in my face. Seagrass parting under the tinny. A Shepherd's Warning sky. Slap of a black bream tail in the red box. Shake the catching net at the pelicans so they rise away from the herring in a panic and settle again, cruise back in. One barnacled blue manna crab. Gnarly bastard.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Divine Wind

Last night at the old whaling station, the mayor of Albany helped launch Sea Shepherd's 2011 Antarctic campaign Divine Wind (aka 'God Wind', or 'Kamikaze', interestingly).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On a Mission

The panting of a brindle dog
disturbed my washing up.
I ran through the house to the veranda.
A yellow-eyed chicken killer,
part mastiff, pitty, kelpie
and born to partake in this county's gifts,
slurped water from the tub under the tap

"Come here. C'mon. Here boy."

He looked at me like I was a crazy
and loped away, up the street.

When Bob lived
I used to pitstop too.
A cup of Bob's grimy tea
and I was ready for the world.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Seaways This Morn

A Warm Welcome From the Albany Port Authority

On the Salamanca docks in Hobart we wondered at the the Antarctic expeditioner named after a nineteenth century French sojourner. I love reading the journals of d'Urville and his officers in King George Sound. In Hobart we could nearly touch this maritime continuation of our past.

Not so in Albany. Tonight the SS Steve Irwin steamed in. Below is the only look you will get at this ship while they are in town, unless you have a boat. And then, no closer than eighty metres, please.

The security guard is a friendly from a firm contracted by the the Albany Port Authority to make sure no rabble get close to the port. "I work for/ for the APA," he told me, careful to distance himself with an extra 'for'. He might have been a cheerful employee but he is also an old Albany boy who used to fish off the wharf just like me, and he remembers all the graffiti that the seamen left, huge painted signs of national flags on the concrete back in the day when we had access.

He also remembers the whaling days because his uncles and his father worked the chasers.

He was good at his job and pleasantly refused to open the gates. He pointed the way for our best photo opportunity out by the tug boat harbour. I knew a way I could get to the port via my old fish factory haunt but tonight it involved a barbed wire fence that resembled something I used to build to keep foxes out of my chook pen. Dammit, no carpet, no key to the gates ...

"The eclipse is s'posed to be tonight but I didn't see it," he said. Well he should know. He'd been standing outside all night, protecting the port from terrorists, drug dealers and litigants, you know, the usual sorts that hang around Albany.
 Yes. Anyway. Welcome to Albany, Sea Shepherd.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Waiting for Bardot

This afternoon we set nets and crab pots at the western end of the harbour.
"You gone to visit Paul Watson yet?" Old Salt asked me.
"Why?" I was thinking of our local member of parliament. (Mental note, Peter not Paul.)
"Isn't he coming to town to save the whales?"
Ahh. The Sea Shepherd mob.

Apparently the Steve Irwin and the Brigitte Bardot are coming into port today and will be launching this season's campaign from the old whaling station on Monday. As I keep saying, the whaling dramas continue to play out in our town, the last land-based whaling station in the southern hemisphere.

"I think he's an arsehole," Old Salt was trying to get a rise out of me. "Putting people out of work. He should get a real job instead of sailing around the world, stopping good people from doing theirs."

The problem with working in a small boat is that you are stuck with whatever conversation is going on. Sometimes when Old Salt wants a barney, I'll ask him to drop me off on an island. This is a good lurk. This afternoon I was forced to stay aboard and, if you know me at all from A WineDark Sea, I'm quite partial to a rant if it suits me.

"Where was the Australian Navy when the whalers were cruising through the Australian Whale Sanctuary? Where? 'Crackpot' Watson was the only one out there. It's a territorial matter as much as anything but the government were behaving like total limpdicks." (I'm trying really hard to reign in my deckie mouth whenever I head off to uni but at sea, things are different.)
"I reckon the Australian government has some agreement with the Japanese we don't know about," Old Salt said. "But they've been eating whale meat for centuries. That should be their right. Imagine how many people you could feed with a single whale."
"Poor people?"
"They can't afford to eat Japanese whale meat."
 He muttered something about poor people breeding too much and I smiled away to the water. I know he hates that.
"But they should be able to kill whales if it is a part of their ancestral heritage."
"Yeah, with diesel-powered gunships, thousands of nautical miles from their own waters. Yeah."

Old Salt  said, "When I was whaling, oh it was a good life. We were a bunch of rascals, out at sea, coming in with shitloads of money, tearing up the town ... yeah, it was good. But I wouldn't do it now. I never liked seeing those creatures die. It was a terrible thing, to see them die."

When we got back to the boat ramp, he said "I want you down here at four-thirty tomorrow mornin'."
Four thirty. Three thirty out of bed, with forty five minutes to get my shit together. We go through this routine of bargaining waking hours every Saturday.
"It's dawn at five."
Summer is bastard for layabout fisherwomen like me. "Yep. That gives us two hours to pick up."
"With the pots and all," He chucks me his worried look. " ... and all those crabs in the nets ... "
He gave in a bit too fast though. Made me think he hated too-early mornings too. "Okay, don't be late. No socialising tonight."

I went for a drive around the headland after he drove off  because I saw the whale watching cat set off and I thought they may be ushering in the Sea Shepherd fleet. There was a bit of a buzz in the air. But I had no joy when I went down to the pea factory on the channel to scout them out. I'll post some photos if I see them in my sleepy, dazed state in the morn.

In the mean time, here's some that I took of the Taurus heading out to the islands.

Ivor Cutler and the Herring

Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, #2, Episode 11.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On Burying Brindle Dogs

Last night I drove out Chester Pass and saw my year's first of those strange household Christmas installations adorning some horrible brick veneer, um, home. I understand that this is the only time of the year this house will be anywhere near striking. I even get, when I'm feeling generous, the impetus behind the flashing lights, fake Santas, snow and reindeers, despite it being midsummer fire season in Australia.

About five years ago the West Australian ran a competition for the best domestic Christmas lights fiasco. The same year I got lost in suburban Perth in the middle of the night, a refugee from the south coast trying to find a wedding in the city of Fremantle. I kept doubling back in the Bedford van and blundering into the same brick and tile Rockingham wasteland sporting sparkling rooftop sleighs driven by fat men in Coca Cola suits. Even Indiana Jones would have felt disenchanted.  I've hated that newspaper ever since.

Stop fussing, please. I'm getting around to burying brindle dogs. Stay with me here.

At about the same time, a suburb in Albany began specialising in the domestic Christmas thing. Whole streets of houses were strung up with Christmas bling and there were even oldies coming out to give kids lollies. It sounded great and I decided that I'd take my children on a tour of the Christmas lights. Unfortunately, I'd run out of petrol that morning - the usual starving student, single mum scenario - so I asked my Mum if I could borrow her car.

My mum had this dog who she'd saved from a certain death several years previously. Mum saves dogs a lot because, like me, she's an old witch who knows that dogs are her familiars. Gypsy was a great dane crossed with bull mastiff; a friendly, brindle killing machine. Her genes were completely dodgey. This living example of humankind tampering with nature always shits me. Some people just think they can build dogs to extend some ridiculous idea of themselves.

By the time she was eight years old, Gypsy's back could no longer hold up her body and she was in constant pain.Then she started trying to kill other dogs. I took her for a walk one day and met a man and his child on the bridge. His beautiful two year old daughter tried to ride her like a horse and Gypsy bit her when the toddler began to throw a leg over. Not only Gypsy's physical pain but the look in her eye began to bother me.
My mum and I had stern words.
"It's only a matter of time," I said. "She'll tear some kid's head off. You can't trust her. It's gotta be done."

On one of those pre-Christmas days, Mum put Gypsy in the back of her little sedan to get her put down. It was a hot, busy, chaotic day.

That night, we drove around the Christmas bling suburb. The eve was steamy with new summer smells. We drove up and down suburban streets lit up with festivities and we stopped often to walk around and wonder at the massive efforts of the householders and eat their offered sweets. Whenever we got back into the car, I started sniffing at my freshly adolescent daughter. "Darling, it's okay not to have a shower every night. But you must change your clothes. That's what it is. It's hot. You are sweating more now you are a teenager. "

They will never know. Right?
That their mum took them on a tour of Christmas delights with their beloved Gypsy going off in the boot. The next morning my mum told me that because I'd been working all day and wasn't around, she wasn't able to lift the great dane's body out on her own. She sold the car eventually. She was never able to get the smell out.

Gypsy wasn't the first big brindle dog to grace my life.
I used to live in the centre of town with several babies, chickens and a brindle kangaroo dog. In Europe they are called lurchers, the original poaching dogs. Silent, (they don't bark when hunting) incredibly fast, brindle and shaggy, they are the bedraggled kings and queens after my own heart. Lurchers in Australia tend to be dearly loved by Aborigines and old-school farmers. A strange connection, I know.

Daisy was a feral mix of wolfhound, staghound and Rhodesian ridgeback. Her kin appeared lounging around King Lear's hearths. She died when she sniffed out a plastic bag of rat poison on the back of a ute. I'd taken her out to the farm when she went on heat to avoid Black Dog who turned up every six months on the dot. When the farmer alerted me to the empty bag of rat poison blowing in his yard, I took her to the vet who pumped her with vitamin K. She lived for another week. Finally her big body lay on the vinyl floor, showered with flowers from the vet's garden.

Black Dog stayed at my house, waiting. Sometimes I fed him.

I dropped the kids off at school and then the nurse helped me carry Daisy's body out to my car. I got home, dragged her out of the car and wrapped her in a tarpaulin. For the rest of the day, I dug.

It's an old part of town. I had a conversation yesterday with the current owner of the house I lived in then and he agrees on the strata. There is basalt rocks and seashells and bones and the remains of a lumber yard. I dug all day, turfing out rocks, other families' beloved dead dogs, olive oil tins and sea shells. Then I went to pick up the kids from school.

We three stood around the massive hole. Pearlie and Stormboy couldn't believe Daisy had actually died.
All of us were sobbing. Believe me, perhaps the death of a long-removed family member is an assault on our knowledge of grief. Try dogs. I lowered the tarp-clad  body of Daisy into the hole. She didn't fit. Fuck. I'd spent all day digging that hole but the dog's legs were stretched out in rigor mortis and she was the size of a calf.  Pearlie and Stormboy started crying even more. I desperately tried to widen the hole with my shovel.

Across the road lived the local ABC radio announcer who (I'm pretty sure) saw all my weekly dramas and domestics play out. I'd always liked him and his wife but was too inundated and shamed and baby-tired to acknowledge them.

I saw him  cross the road. He must have been watching me dig that dog's grave from his front room. He walked up to me and took the shovel from my hands. He patted my shoulder and said, "No-one should have to do this on their own, Sarah."
And he started digging.
I loved him then.
I always will.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Whale, Daughter, Overland

The latest copy of Overland is due to hit my letterbox next week and it's very exciting for me because one of my stories is in it!
I call Whale, Daughter my 'hysterical story' because I spent most of its creation in tears.

But don't let a few damp blotches on the pages put you off. It's the story of a dying whale and other aspects of my life at that time but I still feel this is a sound piece of work. There's lots of other good stuff in there too, of course. I notice (she said a bit grumpily) that Overland hasn't made it to West Australian or Northern Territory bookshops but you can subscribe online here.

Three Interesting Things

 Remnants of the past ... these net racks used to be in every commercial fisherman's backyard and salmon beach. They were for drying the heavy hemp or cotton nets after being tanned in big drums of boiling grass tree resin and water, and also to clean out sea weed after a beach seine shot. The net racks tended to disappear when the fishers began to use monfilament but this one is still standing at Windy Harbour.

Quongdongs, bush tucker extraordinaire! I was driving out to Kundip with one of the local elders on Tuesday. She kept slowing as we got near the Phillips River. "No, not there." She'd speed up again and then slow on the next corner. "Here, here." And 'Here' we wandered through a little forest of Quongdongs. I'd like to plant some at my place.

Redback spider. Danger danger, that jagged red stripe screams. I haven't seen one that big and red for a long time. Kundip seems to harbour a few invertebrate nasties like redbacks and scorpians.

And that is my show and tell for today!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sailing the Good Ship Vesperosa

Text from a Toa Sister

"Nothing but cool alloy sculptures left.
Me house exploded.
i reckon i can say
i take the 
biggest explosion by a Drummond girl prize."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Punch and Judy (With All the Scary Bits!)

While Ken handed out pamphlets at the markets for his travelling Punch and Judy show, I asked his partner Kirsty, "what is it about Punch and Judy? What are your theories?"
She replied that kids are always being told what to do and how to behave, Constable Care style. When they are exposed to Punch's reprehensible, ridiculous buffoonery that involves him making the same mistake over and over again, children are happy to claim the moral power to let him know where he is going wrong. So they teach themselves ... Nice hey.

Here are the details for Punch and Judy in Albany and Denmark:

ALBANY, this Saturday, Nov. 26.
11 am & 2pm
St Johns church hall
York Street.

This Sunday, 27th
CWA Hall
Mitchell street

Kids $10.00
Adults $12.00
Family (4) $40.00

Enough of Flames

 Enough of flames for a little while and back on the WineDark Sea... except to let you know that the Toa sisters are all okay. The weather in Margaret River has cooled down which will make it easier to bring the fire under control, today. The Denmark fires sound like they have settled down a bit too. I woke this morning with smoke from 50 kilometres away filtering through my curtains.

Last night we fished for flathead and then motored home at night, past the container ships.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wildfire #2

One sister is leaving town. "My kids are getting more and more upset. They're getting all the old folk out of the hospital. The school's shut down. It's so smoky here. We're leaving."

Annie's house was obliterated yesterday. She's lost everything* and is running on a strange kind of adrenalin when I talk to her. I'm still waiting for her to crash.
"That house would have exploded ... the fuel tins I stored under the veranda, and my best motorbike too ...but my Nissan Urvan - the fire burnt in a neat circle right around it! That is my best car. I'm so stoked. Also, you'd never credit it, someone gave me a fire fighting unit the day before yesterday!"
"Well, that's not really useful when you've gotta race in, grab your paperwork and leave," I said.
"Yeah ... especially because there wasn't even a hose attached!"

My other sister (I have lots of  sisters in Margs) is contemplating the fire front heading for her house as I write this post. She's in town and has been convoying cars, dogs, boats and furniture from her forest block all day. "You wouldn't believe the gusts. Fifty, sixty kilometres an hour. Then it just stops and we think everything's okay. The fire is making its own weather system. But now the wind has changed and its blowing the fire front towards the town. Everyone is freaked out."
She's worried about her landlord/neighbour who is refusing to leave. "He's like the captain of the Titanic, the stupid bastard. He's out there getting pissed."

On my last phone call, the sisters were okay but seriously rattled and tired after twenty-four hours of drama, sleeping with mates, community briefings and stressing out over horses etc. One sister wants to break a few DEC kneecaps but as I reminded her, "You'd hesitate at the crucial moment, darl. I know you too well."

Tonight ...  the FESA incident controller Roger Armstrong told the community meeting that conditions were unlikely to get better. "It'll be traveling fast, the sky will go dark, it'll be very scary, and there'll be a lot of noise," he said.

*except her Urvan!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


 I was driving into town this morning and listening to the fire warnings on the radio. 'Catastrophic' was the potential scenario handed out to country north east of here. This is a new warning that morphed from the Ash Saturday disaster. Before then, Australians only had to deal with 'high' or 'extreme' fire danger.


Driving again in the afternoon, I heard that a fire was burning out of control near Margaret River. The announcer gave warnings about Caves Road. Shit. I rang my sister who lives in a little wooden hippy shack in the forest there. Her phone was dead. I rang two other sisters. "She's okay. She evacuated." Finally Annie rang me. "I got my tools and some clothes. (She is an extremely well dressed mechanic) But I think my house has just burnt down."


The directions on what to do for people living on Caves Road brings home how truly terrifying this fire is:



It is too late to leave. You need to take shelter in your home and actively defend it.
Take shelter inside furthest away from the fire front and make sure you can easily escape.
It is best to shelter in a room with two exits and a water supply such as a kitchen or laundry.
You must seek shelter before the fire arrives as the very hot radiant heat will kill you well before the flames reach you. Protect yourself with long sleeves, long trousers and strong leather boots.
If your home catches on fire and the conditions inside become unbearable, you need to get out and go to an area that has already been burnt.
Do not leave in a vehicle or on foot as this is deadly."*

Images: Perth Now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Day in the Sound

 A day in King George Sound fishing for King George whiting is a kind of healing after a winter in the estuaries. Any grumpiness produced by murky inlet waters, muddy seagrass, angry crabs and obscenely early mornings are forgotten as the Westerberg skims the offshore briny and settles into the turquoise dream of the whiting grounds.

Triangles of white sails lie against the islands. Fish shaped like silver sickles, like big bluegum leaves, come up in pods of three. The water in the red bin glistens with whiting mica and far away, I can see the flashes of swell crashing into Breaksea Island. My skin tightens with sun and salt but I just cannot turn my face away from it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interview With a Fisherwoman #3

When she was two years old and living on the island, her father would put her in a wicker basket and lower her on a rope down the long walls of granite to the groper hole. 
He was a strong man and a lighthouse keeper. 

He would climb down after her and together they berleyed up crabs and abalone roe.
Some of the groper were as big as he. He’d climb back up the rock with the tracer over his shoulder, hauling the creature out of the sea.
“We used to eat fish every day, and rabbits. Loads of rabbits on Eclipse Island. The Kestrel only came out every few weeks with supplies, firewood, kero, flour, all that stuff, so we ate whatever was around.”

As a family they worked sharking at Hammelin Bay and rarely went past the little island for prey. It has always been a popular holiday spot and I think netting is now banned there. “So many sharks! Right where everyone swam and mucked about.” She showed me a photograph of her as a kid, surrounded in shark carcasses slung from racks and lying in the sand at her feet.

Black and white photographs of huge sharks, the images peeled at the edges, sometimes a date, names and other details neatly typed on a separate piece of paper and glued carefully beneath the fish – I see these pictures often when talking to older fishers. 
Far from macho posings, the commercial fishers tended to take pictures of women wearing shady hats and aprons, or children with bleached, wild hair sitting astride a monster that they hooked off the beach or dragged out of the salmon net. Women and their daughters have always been part of the action.

“I was snigging salmon up the beach when I was two years old,” Ms Mer tells me proudly.

Image: Mulloway. Robert Neill. 1841.

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.