Authors: Tim Winton
I won’t let on if you don’t, he said giving her a view of the windswept teeth in his smile.
Keys. Phone. Shall we?
In the cab, as she gunned the Cruiser across the three blocks of town, Georgie could smell more soap on him than ouzo; a good sign. He punched digits into his mobile and put his feet up on Jim Buckridge’s dash.
Rachel, he said to Georgie. She knows her shit from shavin cream.
Went to the university and what-all. Jerra! he yelled into the phone. Oy, you lazy, fat hippy bastard, get ya missus down the ambo shed and tell her to put her teeth in!… Well, mate, excrement occurs and this is ya small community arrangement.
She’s rostered on… Yeah, yeah, wash ya mouth out, ya cheeky prick. Five minutes.
Georgie swept them into the yard in front of the volunteer service shed.
Slick drivin, Georgiana. Should join up, drive the blood-truck for us.
Thanks, but I’m more your fire brigade type, Yogi.
Yairs, well there’s more bells and whistles, I spose. And a yellow hat.
Bloody helmet. Gets em every time. I’ll put in a good word.
She left him there and drove off with a smile. She understood why the fishermen loved him. The God-given laugh. The sunny outlook.
After a day at sea in a miserable slop and the hammering wind they came in to heave their catch onto his truck and his happy bullshit was balm. He was no gift to womanhood but he probably took the edge off a few homeward tempers.
Pulled up in front of the surfshop, she saw several dreadlocked boys and girls come to wary attention. Piercings, coldsore lips.
She had ten minutes. Wished she’d brushed her teeth.
Coastal heath. Sheep pasture jagged with limestone. Banksia thickets. A couple of sterile pine plantations before the farmlets and crappy subdivisions. The empty two-lane hums and the dog slumps across its forepaws, eyeing him. He does it in two hours. Wonders about the dog and time.
Did he who made the Lamb make thee, mutt?
The dog lifts an eyebrow.
I’m talking fearful symmetry.
The dog coils up and settles in to lick its balls.
Behind the vast terracotta roof plain of Perth a clutch of mirrored towers rises in the bronze band of sky.
Jerusalem, he mutters.
Luther Fox pulls into the greasy funk of the rear courtyard at Go’s. A kid bagging bottles by the dumpster looks up through his black fringe and stalks inside. The yard smells of burnt oil and rotting vegetables. The dog whines a little.
Stay put, mutt, or you’ll find yourself on a bed of steamed rice.
The city hums with the white noise of traffic and airconditioning. Somewhere a car alarm whoops endlessly.
Go comes to the door in his crisp white apron. Fox gets out, extends a hand.
You got abalone, Lu?
I’m fine, Go, and thanks for askin.
We do business, Lu. No time for fuck around.
Fox grins. Go strides to the rear of the Ford. His manner never alters. The Vietnamese has purposeful intensity down pat.
No abs, says Fox.
Ah, that’s bad.
You could buy it legit, you know.
Two hunnerd dollar a kilo? You fuckin crazy?
What you have, then?
Some good fish. Jewies, snapper, cod.
When did you ever get anything from me that wasn’t fresh?
Jokes, all your jokes stale.
Okay, you got me there.
The restaurateur gives the dog a wide berth and leaps up onto the truckbed. The two big steel boxes look like tradesmen’s toolchests. They even have the obligatory stickers—Stihl, Sidchrome, 96FM. Go motions toward the larger of them and Fox unfurls a hand in a gesture of permission, their little moment of civility. A cold mist rises when Go cracks the lid. The fibreglass liner is packed with ice slurry. The Viet digs out a pink snapper. Death has robbed it of most of its blue spots yet its body is still firm, scales laid back in perfect cobblework from lucent eye to taut anus. Iced the moment it hits the deck, Fox’s catch would still be considered prime this time tomorrow but it’s a matter of personal pride to have it here within three hours of leaving the water.
Fresh is beautiful, Lu.
But fresh and cheap—
Tha’s berluddy beautiful!
The ritual laugh.
Go burrows further into the slurry, grunting thoughtfully. Fox doesn’t mind not bringing abalone. He knows most of it will go to the Triads. It’s a shitload of trouble.
Okay. Good fish.
While Go and his brothers unload the fish, Fox counts the cash.
After fuel and bait he’s miles ahead.
Still lucky, says Go, wiping his hands on his apron.
Fox shrugs. He hasn’t felt lucky in a good while.
So, Lu, who you sell abalone to?
Didn’t get any, mate. I said that.
Someone pay more, huh?
No, there wasn’t any.
I do good business with you all year one year.
Hard for me. Big family. Too many restaurants here.
Most of em buy their seafood at the market, Go. They’re paying twice what you are.
And not fresh!
Yeah, you’re a man of standards, Go.
I don’t call cops.
Me neither. We’re both in the same position, you know.
Bullshit! I been through a war. And then South China fuckin Sea and Malaysia camps and Darwin. And fifteen people looking up to me, Lu. Not the same!
Go, there weren’t any abalone, orright? It was too rough to dive.
Best jewfish today.
Next time abalone.
No we’ll see. Gotta be absolutely.
I’ll be tryin.
Shake hand now.
Fox takes his cold hand. The family retreats inside. Out in the street the car alarm finally blips off.
Jim’s boat was called the Raider. Georgie figured it was a pretty mellow name in an anchorage full of boats like Reaper, Slayer and Black Bitch. A couple of younger crew had vessels called Mull Bus and The Love Shack but apart from your standard ethnic saints’ names the labels were generally aggro-extractive.
When Jim came steaming into the lagoon with his bow wave up like a rippling flag, there was something of a gathering on the jetty.
Yogi and Rachel had the ambulance light flashing.
At the sandy end of the jetty Georgie met the sorry youth she’d lured from the bowels of the surfshop and together they walked out to where the crowd waited.
Jim’ll be in a nice old shit, said the boy.
Think of the money, she said.
Raider pulled in with a histrionic reversing of screws. GM diesels, she thought with what remained of her fishwife self, cheap and loud. Whatever he saved at the dealers this season he’ll be spending on hearing aids in the next.
They brought Boris up conscious and muttering. He was never pretty but today he sported a head like a spoiled mango. His wound was a ragged exclamation mark from scalp to nose and Georgie saw that he needed sutures.
The pupils on him, said Rachel as they loaded him in.
Pissholes in the snow, said Yogi.
You’ve never bloody seen snow, Yogi, said Rachel.
Seen a few pissholes, though.
You see what I have to work with, Georgie? said Rachel mildly.
I’ll have hours of it.
Least you’re in the back with Boris.
Who’s up? Jim yelled from the bridge of the lurching boat. There was blood on his shirt and he looked ornery behind his reflector shades. Who’s comin?
Me, said the kid beside Georgie. His dejected voice barely carried above the idling diesels.
Well, what’re you waitin for—a printed fuckin invitation?
The boy swung aboard to stand beside the other crewman and Jim had them boiling away before the lines even hit the deck.
He’ll wish he was never born, said Yogi. Poor little cunt.
Hey, driver! called Rachel. You thinking of taking this bloke to hospital any time soon?
He’ll be orright. Torn upholstery, thasall. Keep yer rubber gloves on, girlie.
Girlie me I’ll kick you fair up the date.
You’ll put a hole in me ouzone layer.
Yeah, that’d hurt.
Scuse me, George. Must convey a chap to his physician.
Yogi waddled around and climbed into the 250’s cab.
Rachel paused from swabbing and smiled.
Yogi’s forgotten the doors. Would you mind?
Georgie liked Rachel. Word was she’d been a social worker.
Georgie had the impression her bloke might be the local dope dealer. Despite having stayed ten years, Rachel wasn’t a genuine White Pointer either. She wore peasant scarves and didn’t shave her legs. Her face was plain and honest and open. Georgie wondered how it was they had never become friends, but even as she asked herself the question she knew the answer. She just hadn’t taken the trouble. For three years she’d kept entirely to herself.
She swung the doors to. Rachel winked. The big Ford eased up the jetty behind a rolling wave of gulls.
An hour out of the city Fox sees the ambulance come bawling and flashing round the bend, its white duco flecked with the shadows cast by lemon-scented gums. Grips the wheel. Clocks the sight of Yogi B//ehr at the helm, elbow out the window like a bloody hot-rodder. Sees his eyes widen in recognition as they pass in a slam of slipstream. The moment rides by. He’s okay but chilled to the teeth. It takes a breath or two to digest the fact that Yogi, the little bugger, crossed himself going by as if warding off the evil eye.
Josh held the two halves of his skateboard and looked at Georgie in disbelief. Not that such a thing could occur but that it might have been accidental.
Georgie had begun patient and contrite, as upbeat as she could manage to be so late in the day. Brad looked on with an air of disinterest she no longer believed in. The fridge hummed.
Maple top, Georgie.
I know, love.
My birthday present.
From me. Yes.
Well that’s it!
Leaving bag and shoes and shirt on the kitchen floor he flounced down to his room.
Bummer, said Brad with the faintest hint of a smirk.
He knows I’ll buy him another one, she said, a little shaky. So how’s school?
Sucks. New teacher wants a choir.
Great. You used to sing so much. You’ve got a lovely voice.
And no woman’ll make me.
Georgie felt it somehow directed at her, was stung as he grabbed up an apple and sloped off. Within a few moments the hateful, lobotomized music of some Nintendo game rose from the stairs. The usual explosions, yelps of pain, murderous laughter.
Late that afternoon Jim came in bloodshot and silvery with salt.
Ah, she murmured, pouring him a glass. Captain Happy.
Ahoy. As they say.
How was it?
Worked his ring gear out.
Good for him.
Three hundred kilos.
Not bad for a day of disasters.
I’m a day ahead of em, I reckon. Maybe tomorrow we’ll kill the pig.
Hell, that’s what, seven thousand dollars?
Before bait and fuel. Wages. Tax.
Yeah, destitution, eh.
Called the hospital, she said. Boris took fifteen stitches.
Concussion. He’s okay. What hit him?
Snapper sinker big as a hotdog. It was all fouled in the pot.
Came up swingin off it. Kerblam. Coulda killed him. Some bloody wood-duck up for the weekend got his line snagged on the gear and just left it there. Hey, nice goin with the skateboard.
You know already?
He was waitin on the front lawn for me, the little dobber.
He knows I’ll buy him another one.
Bugger him, he can save for it. Told him often enough about puttin the damn thing away.
No, I’ll get it.
Not this time. He needs to learn. After a certain point everybody’s on their own.
Georgie sighed. He didn’t see the politics of it. But she was too tired to argue.
At dinner Jim quizzed the boys about their day at school. Like most kids they’d blotted it from consciousness the moment they flew from the classroom door, so their responses were vague and guarded and Georgie felt the ghost of the broken skateboard hanging over her end of the table. Although Jim had started there himself, he had misgivings about the local school and Georgie could sense his restraint in not launching outright into a test of what they had learnt in six hours. He was a curious man. At forty-eight he was weatherbeaten but still attractive in a blunt, conventional antipodean way. His eyes were grey and his gaze steely. There were scars on his forehead and sun lesions on his hands and arms. His lips were often chapped and he had coarse, sandy hair whose curls, no matter how short the cut, seemed incongruously delicate for a man whose rumbly voice and physical presence altered the atmosphere of a room. There was something resolutely sober about him, a ponderous aspect. He was emotionally reserved. His features were impassive. Yet he had a weary humour that Georgie liked and when he did laugh a network of creases transformed his face, dividing it so many times as to render the whole less daunting.
At White Point Jim was the uncrowned prince. People deferred to him. They watched him and took his lead and hung on every word.
Several times a week men and women alike would drop by for a moment in confidence and he’d retire with them to the airless little room he used as an office. Even his perennial presidency of the regional branch of the Fishermen’s Association couldn’t account for the breadth of his authority. Some gravitas seemed to have been inherited from his legendary father, years dead. Big Bill was, by all accounts, not merely a man’s man, but a bastard’s bastard whose ruthless cunning was not confined to fishing. The Buckridges had been successful, acquisitive farmers in their time but as fishermen they were profoundly, prodigiously superior, and others in the fleet were in awe of Jim’s success.
To them it was almost supernatural. They lived and died by chance, by fluctuations in weather and ocean current, by momentary changes in spawning patterns and migration. Crustacea was a fickle kingdom. And Jim Buckridge seemed touched. He simply refused to admit to it or even discuss it but Georgie knew this was the nub of his effect upon them: they thought he had the gift. Although he lived like a man without a past, never reminiscing—not even with the kids—and always seeming to look forward, Georgie knew there were painful secrets there. He was a widower, and he’d lost his mother as a child. He refused to discuss either loss and sometimes Georgie detected a suppressed rage in him that she was glad to be spared. It was rare; it came and went in brief flickers, but it unnerved her. Watching the caution and deference with which townsfolk treated him Georgie wondered if they thought his fishing luck was special because it was the obverse of his domestic life, if they believed that his freakish touch had come at a high personal cost. She knew they came around to stay in with him socially, but also in the hope that his luck might rub off on them. He endured it but he seemed to hate it too.