Thursday, November 30, 2017

Mainbechup Tales

Prickle and the Octopus

At the inlet the row of squatter’s shacks faces The Cut at the coast like the main street in a western. Rough jury-rigged shacks, each one singular in appearance. Some people say that they feel unwelcome or uncomfortable here.

Old Mrs Norris certainly never returned once she found out the previous owner of her family’s shack, Prickle, had died in there. ‘They found him three days later,’ Meadow Man told me. Apparently, they worked out the time of Prickle’s death by the state of the prawns Prickle had left, uncooked, in a bucket in the kitchen. The cause of death, well, ‘There was a blue ringed octopus in the bucket too.’

Scattering is easier than gathering.

Peppermint flowers coat the ground like hailstones, pepper my hair too. Karri hazel flowers are misty, ethereal sprays of pink and white under the canopy, and the solya are berrying up. Thousands of brilliant blue dragonflies cling to reeds, all lined up facing into the wind. The roads are busy with ravens after the smashed bugs. The black blood bruise on my thumbnail, inflicted on the cuticle while chopping wood in the dark month, reaches journey’s end this spring. Burning season begins.

The tombolo and the fish trap

When the inlet was cut off from the sea by a sand bar, it was the end of a millennial relationship where river and sea were always acquainted. She was a moving water then, and ruled by the pull of the moon. People built graceful arcs into the inlet with stone two courses high. For three thousand years they trapped fish behind the stone walls as the tide fell.
‘How did the traps work, if the inlet is only open and tidal for a month a year?’ I asked Meadow Man.
‘Back in the old days the bar was always open,’ he said.
‘Where did you hear that?’
‘The old people told me.’

Like a Viking

Old Whacker, getting sucked out to sea when the bar breached, stood at the tiller ‘like a Viking’, his brother said. His brother had jumped overboard and made it to shore. Whacker was never seen again.

Swan skein

The swans are back, though they don’t feed near my home. The water here is too deep for their cockle foraging. But I hear their chatter as they fly over the inlet to the shallower cockle fields.

The inlet feels like a Borderlands, a space in between. It is a puzzle of a place and sometimes I wonder if it grieves its Old People the way The Secret Garden grieved the children who once within its walls. If Tindale was right, then the gravel track from the highway to the inlet roughly marks the boundary between two nations. But the inlet, the islands within and the country, they are fiercely loved by the shack people who know the place intimately these days. And yet even they say that some 'strange things have gone on around here.'

The bar opened for a few weeks in August but it rained so hard this winter that the inlet swelled again, looking like it might have broken twice. But it didn’t, it just filled up, though not tight as a drum when it is ready to blow. Whacker’s men dug for two days because they don’t like the water so high, and failed. This failure made me happy because I can swim in the inlet in the coming summer and it is like swimming in warm, black tea, clean, a faint taste of tannin.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Straight to the Dublin

I was on my second last day at work. It was the middle of winter. I say on my TWDS bio here that I work in a service station and write stuff but only the latter is true these days. Mmm. Fix your bio Sarah Toa. Write instead, ‘writes’ because that is all I am doing at the moment. Living from my savings, writing. Setting nets and setting fire to things.

Anyhoo, in July, when I was on my second last day at the service station, I got in after dawn to open up the shop and prime the coffee machine. There was an invoice addressed to me lying on the day book. It was a bill for the honey I’d bought from my boss. Plastic pails of honey due for the shop shelves had been damaged in transit a few weeks beforehand and I’d bought several kilos at cost price. Boss couldn’t work out the correct amount at the time, and we’d let it slide until the business was sold and I got laid off and it was my second last day at work.

Getting the bill for thirty dollars’ worth of honey would normally not have rankled me. I don’t mind paying for things I’ve bought. But the invoice was grinding against the fact that in the eighteen months I’d been making coffee in the adjoining cafe, I never saw a single tip. I mean, I did see them, tinkling silver and gold into the cut-glass tip jar, but I never received any. Every month the tip jar was emptied and stashed in some mysterious parallel universe that did not involve us humble baristas and service station toilet-cleaners. Anyone in charge went vague or uncomfortable when I began my difficult, querying, Sarah-assholery as to what was actually happening with the tips.

On my second last day I received the honey invoice but still no bounty of tips. Boss was nowhere to be seen, I was on my own and it was a tumbleweed midwinter sort of day. I didn’t feel graceless enough to indulge in burning bridges down to the waterline, so I had one act of resistance left. When I’d finished raising a lone fist to workers’ solidarity, I settled down to scroll through my phone.

I stood at the counter and read the ABC news and my Twitter feed. I think I even had a look at A WineDark Sea. One of the local blokes came in and bought a newspaper. ‘Correct weight,’ he said, putting one dollar fifty on the counter. I rang it up. Cha-ching. Then I checked my emails. Amongst the dross, one email stood out. It was from my publishing house with the heading: URGENT 2018 International Dublin Literary Award.

The Sound had been nominated for the award that was previously called the IMPAC. If it was deemed as fitting the criteria, the book would go straight to a longlist on November 6th. ‘Can we go ahead with this?’ wrote the publicist.

I looked back over the email she’d forwarded to me. State libraries from all over the world can nominate up to three novels for the award. Out of the hundreds of international entries, the judges will whittle down a shortlist, announced in 2018. Info was embargoed until the longlist was decided. I’m not one to use Jesus’s name as expletive or exhortation, but the ramifications of my book being longlisted for one of the richest literary prizes in the world made me breathe out his name. Silently.

‘Congratulations,’ the email ended.

The judges of this year's award
I was still amazing over the email when FIFO Frank, returning from his swing away, came in for a coffee. ‘What’s going on?’ He asked.
‘Oh, not much. It’s my second last day at work.’
Frank looked alarmed and adjusted his beanie. Obviously, the Bush NBN (previously known as the Telegraph) had failed him while he was away. When I explained about the business changing hands, he said, ‘This is really bad. I don’t like change. It’s not good Sarah. What are you gonna do?’
‘I’ve got some things lined up,’ and it was true. At the time I was just about to do a month-long writer in residence in Perth, and I was looking forward to a summer spotting for fires from a tower at the top of a mountain. ‘There is more to life than pumping fuel and making coffees.’

There is something very cool about The Sound going straight to Dublin, city of literature. Today I am finally able to say that my book has been longlisted for one of the biggest literary prizes In.The.World. I’ve been just popping with this information for months and unable to say anything.

‘It’s okay, Frank,’ I said, as he stumped out of the shop, clutching his flat white.
‘Well, I’ll seeya,’ he said.

Despite my newfound literary self-esteem, I was still fixating on those missing tips. I knew I made great coffee and that I was often the first smile the old blokes saw in the morning. So, two days after my last day at work I went into the shop. My ex-boss was there and I put the honey invoice on the counter in front of him. ‘I’d like to pay for the honey but I’d also like to ask you about my tips.’
He started prevaricating, ‘Well, we were going to take you all out to dinner with the tip money but …’
I waited, listened him out. Looked at him. Finally, he picked up a biro and signed off the honey invoice as paid.

The Sound was nominated by the State Library of Western Australia (Thanks guys), with the librarian commenting: ‘This is an exquisitely beautifully written novel. I could smell the ocean, and feel the sea air, whilst being transported to a historical period I knew nothing about. A rare author who is able to bring historical events and people vibrantly alive. Not since Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet have I so loved a fiction book.’