Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Last Days on the Inlet #2

Last Days on the Inlet

All Saints Day heralds the closure of Pallinup to the three commercial fishers there this year.
"Shame really, just when the fish are coming down the river," said Grievous' Bro.
"But it would be more a shame if the fish weren't coming down, wouldn't it?" I asked him.
We are starting to feel a bit sad about leaving the inlet after six months. Soon we will pack up the camps into a south coast 'travelling circus' convoy: boats, nets, caravans, buoys, ice boxes and pot belly stoves, red plastic fish bins pierced with black bream spikes packed into muddy utes with salt stained windows ... and head back into town to a more civilised life.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday, October 21, 2012


He is the son of the son of a fisherman. A small man, his beard grows down to his chest, flecked with grey. I don't think I've ever seen the hair on top of his head: a beannie covers him up, or a cap, or maybe even a cowboy hat on the weekends when he isn't fishing. He wears polarized sunnies that give off a blue/green hue. I see myself in peacock colours at the truck depot unloading fish into the refrigerator trucks for the city market. He's a few years older than me. His nose looks like it has been boiled in rum. His voice is gravelly with the smokes. He wears skinny black jeans, blue flannellette shirt wide open to expose his tattooed forearms and singlet. Elastic sided boots.

I saw him stalking around his boat trailer on an early morning. He was wearing olive green waders and he was muttering. I could see he felt like shouting but no fisherman shouts when the Fisheries start going through their nets and their catch with measuring sticks.

In another life, he might have been a jockey, a racing car driver, one of those guys who change your tyres or fix the problem plumbing. But he's not. His Dad was a fisherman and so is he. He probably did his apprenticeship during primary school. He never gave a shit about getting an education or observing the social contract. These bindings of society would never have served him anyway. He was borne of familial violence and the cycles of nature. He has a code that he honours and it works for him.

We have a mutual friend. As a teenager, I used to climb the slipway ladder to visit an old shark fisherman. The sharker was in from Esperance to get the barnacles cleaned off the hull. He kept an eye out for me with his binoculars when I was training for the Avon Descent, canoeing from one side of the harbour to another after school.

"You heard ..." he said to me the other day at the truck depot.
"Yeah, I did."
"He was a great man," the fisherman said to me. "A good bloke."

When Old Salt and I are fishing in the channel, we've come across him. He will brandish a knife that looks suspiciously like the Asian machetes seized by Fisheries; the ones shaped and sharpened from car springs, the handles wrapped in string and fish leather. Old Salt grudgingly respects him, because he knew his Dad, and his Dad's Dad. He could exist in any era, I think. He could be one of the men I write about from the 1820s. Bearded, lean, tattooed, full of a stringy, muscular hunger; an anarchic, five foot tall package of a fisherman.

The Reckoning

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Spam Thank You to Unruly and Grievous' Bro

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."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An Electronic Spike

Who was the writer who saved all of his rejection letters on a spike on his desk? Not sure. I suspect it was Stephen King. Anyway, I've decided to post my spike for the year so far on the internet, seeing as all of my rejections came via email.

For the first time ever I've had more rejections than wins. I'm breaking down this rather devastating statistic into several factors: the law of averages (I've been sending more stuff off), the law of the tinny thing (like playing pool, pure arsey beginners' luck is sensational and always a lot of fun) and then there is when the said tinny thing is forced to come up with something better next time (I believe this situation is called 'a discipline', something I resist against my floundering ethical standards and better judgement.)

So here we go, here is the spike with an accompanying commentary ...

Dear Sarah,
Thank you for submitting your short fiction to Southerly.
We have received a large number of short fiction submissions recently, many of them of very high quality. Unfortunately there is no space in the coming year to publish your work, but we look forward to your future submissions.
We apologise for the delay in correspondence, and thank you for you patience. Please don’t hesitate to contact the journal if you have any further queries.

(That rejection took about eight months to hatch out and fly home to me. I'd quite forgotten I'd sent anything to them, which was fine because Overland had snapped up Whale, Daughter in the meantime.) 

But try this next one for an impersonal form rejection email that makes your shoulders slump at the computer.

Dear Sarah,
Thank you for submitting your story to Westerly. We regret that we are unable to use your work in the forthcoming edition. We look forward to receiving submissions from you in the future.
Best wishes – and thanks for your patience,
The Editors
Westerly Centre


The rejection emails I really liked came from the Griffith Review. I got a few but they always felt like a rebuff from fellow writers who gave a fuck:

Dear Sarah,
Thank you for submitting your short story 'The Venus of Breaksea Island' for consideration in the 3rd Annual Griffith REVIEW Summer Fiction Edition. Our editors enjoyed your piece; we feel it demonstrates considerable merit and skill in creating a vivid and harsh landscape and exploring loneliness and companionship in the face of isolation. Unfortunately, however, we were unable to fit your piece into the developing shape of the edition. While your piece did reach our second-round longlist, the overwhelming number of submissions we have received for the Fiction Edition has presented us with some difficult decisions to make; ultimately, this means that many high-quality pieces such as yours must regrettably be turned down. I wish you all the best in getting your work published elsewhere ...

This next one is to date the nicest rejection letter I've ever received. I told them that, to which they replied that they were seriously considering an eBook.

Dear Sarah,
Thank you again for submitting to our Novella competition.
Your submission, The Seal Wife, sailed through to the long-listing stage of the judging process, but I regret to have to inform you that it did not make the final cut.
More than 200 submissions were received and Griffith REVIEW was impressed by the amount of work and skill that went into all of them. The huge response indicates to us that there is a great deal of interest in the novella format and we hope to run a similar competition in the future. We would urge you to consider submitting if that happens.
In the meantime, ML, editor of the Review of Australian Fiction, has asked Griffith REVIEW to pass on to him those submissions that we considered to be especially strong.
With your permission, I would pass on your submission for his consideration.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Damn ... missed out on ten thousand bucks there.
I'm still waiting for a rejection from Overland regarding a story I sent them a month or so ago but Overland's print and internet outlets have both proved to be reliable and pretty egalitarian (and lucrative for me in the past) so if they don't publish me this time, it doesn't bother me too much. I like their style and anyway, that particular story about drinking rum out the back of Ravensthorpe may not have gelled with their progressive politics agenda.

I'm also still waiting for a rejection letter from Black Inc's Best Australian Essays. I'd like one from them this week purely for the sake of good manners, seeing as they have just put up their list of contributors for this year's book and I'm not on it.

It's not all bad. After all, this year I got signed for a ripper book deal which is a nice raised middle finger to the world and the US mag Creative Nonfiction have printed my story about plucking Aunty Jack out of Oyster Harbour in the early hours of a morning when we should have been plucking out crab pots. Coming out this month.

The funny thing is the 'no thanks' emails get easier to handle the more other publishers say 'yes please' because I am beginning to understand what the whole scene is about. 
But writing stuff down and sending it into the ether or a publisher's letterbox to be scrutinised is, was and always will be a case of giving someone an axe and baring your throat upon the chopping block. Writing, acting, painting or sculpting still takes a greatheart, a day job and plenty of spinach.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

She Was Magnificent

I first heard the sound bites on the radio while out at the fishing camp but those bits and the political commentaries were pretty ordinary compared to the raw but disciplined power of Gillard's whole speech, which I found upon entering the ether world again today.

Maybe the Prime Minister has been ramping this up for a while. Maybe she finally cracked. Well, fair enough. Anne Summers spelled out the pressure that the Prime Minister has been subjected to: the lewd cartoons emailed to every parliamentarian right before a day's work, the references to her sexuality, fertility choices, physical attributes ... etc ..etc ... It goes on and on. I've thought for a long time that our Prime Minister was holding out on calling her treatment for what it was, in deference to not playing the 'gender card'.

Today's Weekend Australian seems to be full of angry old men getting cranky about her speech. Like, how dare a woman actually say the words misogyny or sexism out loud? Let alone the Prime Minister. She should be careful playing that game. Thatcher would never do something like that. These damned colonial whores and God's police are just Destroying the Joint.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

On the Road

Deep Sea Dreams from an Estuarine Girl

Yesterday an elfin seal visited while I was in the whalers' lookout, so I sang to her. I think she liked me. Seals and dolphins always enjoy a song, even a version of the Ship Song from mine own rusty chords ...
You are a little mystery
to me,
every time you come around ...

Today was a roaster, with north easterly winds blowing bees, flying ants and globs of foam from the inlet around the camp. Unruly and Grievous' Bro got out of their hollow where the wind was stalled and mosquitoes rampant, parked their utes up at the point, trying to get some air. Unruly did his bookwork on the lap top. Grievous' Bro put his seat back and slept and later he drove up the hill, sat in the gravel pit and cooled off in the muddy pool, returned all windswept and red.

I'm still fascinated with these guys. I've been fishing with them for five or six years now. Recently I saw Bullet swinging his boat trailer around the corner of Frenchman's Bay road. I thought, following him, that commercial fishermen drive their boats like dodgems, cruising through the gloaming in a loose, nasty, casual way that guys do when they do it every day.  Their old dinghies clank along behind their dusty utes loaded with ice boxes and they swing their cars wide on the corners, letting the boats splay across the road.

Reccies do it all different. On the weekends, they carefully tow their boats around the corner and head for the boat ramp, the boats bristling with fishing rods. (Fisheries do it quiet and grey like sharks). The whole process from driveway to ramp is an orchestrated dawn operation. They've got a weekend plan. By the time Old Salt and I are back at the slip after dawn on Saturday morn, we are part of their voyager foibles and deep sea angler dreams. I can see it as the rising sun hits their faces.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Pinoy, the Pigeon and the Mountain

We were at the top of the mountain, the peak, where granite boulders the size of a block of flats squatted amongst alpine gardens and stunted forests of marris. On top of the boulders lay bathtub gnamma holes. I knelt beside one of the holes and peered into its depths. Tadpoles and strange beetles I'd never seen before swam around. I put my hand into the water, to scoop some into my mouth and saw the fine bones of a rotting bird's wing, changed my mind. Then I saw the glinting of a yellow glass bead.

What the hell? The peak is so isolated and difficult to get to that the only signs of humanity are ancient ones. And here is a glass bead. In a pond. Tiny iridescent feathers floated on the water's skin. I picked up the bead.

The bird's wing, the feathers and the bead. "It's a carrier pigeon's leg ring!"
"Oh wow. I wonder ..."
I had visions of this doomed pigeon crashing into the mountain in an exhausted daze, or maybe it was killed by a raptor and taken to the peak to be eaten?

That night in the cave, we lit a fire and cooked up some kangaroo, garlic and mushrooms. We sat down in the dirt and inspected the leg ring by torchlight. Then we got out our phones and started googling. Now you may think that googling a pigeon fancier from a cave on the top of a mountain is strange but you should try the mother lode of pigeon racing p*rn we encountered that night. A YouTube clip, posted by the owner of our unfortunate pigeon, depicted his avian heroes posing coyly amongst red sparkling graphics to the strains of that ultimate stalker song Every Breath You Take by the Police. I recognised the iridescent feathers cloaking the birds' throats. Seeing those feathers set to the music completely did my head in. Days later, I'm still finding that clip unsettling but I keep returning to it like a dysfunctional lover.

So, the day before yesterday, I rang the phone number on the leg ring.
"Hello, I'm Sarah. You probably don't know me. Um, I think I may have found one of your pigeons. Do you live in Albany? Do you have pigeons?"
"Ah, yes, yes. You find my pigeon? Where you find my pigeon?"
"At the top of the mountain."
"The mountain? At the top?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. I found bits of a bird and the leg ring in a pond."
"Ahh, the peregrines ... What number was it?"
"Number? I don't know. Loft 5?"
"No, no. The blue ring."
"I only found a yellow ring, with your phone number on it."
"Oh, ok."
"You might know me. I used to sell fish at the markets." I knew he was Filipino and the local community were great customers at our stall. They like whole, fresh fish (and anyone who has to fillet for hours on a Saturday will appreciate those who like whole fish).
"Fish? Not pigeon? You want to sell fish?"
"No! I want to give you the ring. I'll drop it off tomorrow if you like. Where do you live?"

We organised to meet at his house so I could give him back the leg ring. As I parked on the verge, he came home with his wife and children. He was a short, sturdy man with bushy brows that made him look stern. In the video he was wearing a short straw hat, Chilean style, but this day he was hatless and his hair was speckled with white. A jack russell rabbitted around our feet. He showed me into the back yard, to the pigeon loft.

"Three weeks ago, the club took 300 birds to ahh Leonora. 100 birds came home."
"You lost 200 birds?"
"Yes, yes. The peregrines. They eat them. They eat only brains," he picked at his head with his fingers. "Only brains."
200 pigeon brains.
"How far is that? How long?"
"They fly 865 kilometres. We set them at 8 in the morning and the first three come home at 6 o'clock."
Shit. That's fast. You couldn't drive from Leonora to Albany in that time, not as the pigeon flies.

"We have big races in Adelaide. This bird, this is a famous bird," he pointed one out to me. The pigeon eyed me. What can I say? A fine looking bird, sleek and muscular, its beautiful throat reminding me of the gnamma hole, again.
"All over Australia, people come to race birds in Adelaide. We send them when they are babies. November 30th. Then July we race them from Marla or Coober Pedy, 1000 kilometres to Adelaide. That bird is a famous bird. He came -" he holds up two fingers.
"Yes. Three thousand dollars prize."

I have to say that at this point I was dangerously close to becoming a pigeon fancier. I'd entered the murky world of a sub culture previously beyond my ken. I was totally understanding the sentiment in the theme song to his You Tube clip. Stalker song? I think not!  
Why can't you see? You belong to me, is really about the relationship between a man and his homing pigeon.
"I will tell the club about you," he said. "Who climb the mountain and find my bird. Is a magnificent story."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Getting Bailey Down in the Lookout

Old Salt was in his caravan, reading the paper and eating lollies, waiting out the day until we could set nets again. I asked him if I can take the dinghy out to the sand bar. I wanted to go exploring past Cag's Camp, around the corner to Groper Bluff. And could I take the dog too? He nodded, twice.

The real reason for my coastal hankering that day was not to explore but get a handle on how to write Samuel Bailey kidnapping a seven year old girl off the beach on this same stretch of coast. I'd been intending to do it for weeks and kept putting it off. A day in Bailey's company is no fun. Writing in the quiet blue room can be an insular experience and invoking Bailey just makes me squirm; the twisted shit he'd done. (In case you have not been following this tale, Bailey and the little girl are real people from the 1820s.) When writing Bailey, I'll sometimes go across the road to the pub and buy myself a bottle of wine just to get through it.

After anchoring the boat in the soft sand of the bar, taking care to shelter where she wouldn't blow onto the sand and get stuck (a real bastard when I'm the only one to push off - the dog is never any help), I headed for the gathering of salmon shacks perched above the sand dunes. Wandering along the track to Groper Bluff, I was thinking about snakes and my bare feet and the flowers and saw those amazing mushrooms that bounced out of the barren soil like optimistic aliens.
And then, I came across the whalers lookout ...

Oh boy. Was this one of Cairn Man's depredations? The structure looked 'worked on' ...too tidy for a 19th century job. I really hoped it wasn't Cairn Man. In the end, I deduced that it was an original that had been fixed up a bit. There is a whalers lookout on Cheyne Island, adjacent to Cape Riche, which is very similar in structure, although a little bit more ragged. Stormboy found it when I dropped him off there a few years ago.
"Mum, I'm feeling really sick ..."
"We've still gotta pick these nets up."
"Get me off this boat! I wanna go home."
"How about I drop you on a deserted island for an hour?"
He nods vigorously, "Please Mum, please."

(Call me a bad mother if you want but I still find it hilarious that my son preferred being dropped off on an island, all alone, as a ten year old, rather than hang out with me, providing berley for whiting.)

Shore based whaling east of Albany predated the colonial era and many of the whalers were Americans or from the Eastern states. They chose beaches like this one to flense the whales, setting up their trypots and reducing the leviathans down to mere barrels of oil and bones.

I sat inside the shelter on a flat stone that some kind soul had prepared earlier. Suddenly, I was warm, the sou-westerly at my back. Of course it was a whalers lookout. Sou westers are the season for whales. The utilitarian nature of the structure all made sense. I looked out to sea and thought a bit about what it would have been like.
Samuel Bailey and the little girl just swam straight into my head. I wrote down the whole scene as fast as I could, before the march flies found me.