A seaside novella
This is the story of an Aussie bluegrass band, The Pickin’ Chickens. Follow their lives, lusts, loves and improbable predicaments through the last summer before COVID-19 changed our world.
Table of contents
A daughter phones home.
Two old friends plan to make music.
A bass player, a banjo player and a guitarist walk out of a bar …
An Aussie bluegrass band is born.
Monty makes a discovery.
Anna and Hugh make sweet music.
Tony outlines a plan for the ‘Love Boat’.
Kate gives a candid assessment of her man.
A bass player has a near-death experience.
The bushman act doesn’t fool anyone.
Band practice is rudely interrupted.
Cristóbal saves the day.
A lot of tomatoes get the chop.
Tony and Tasha test the water.
Hugh and Nigel have an inflatable adventure.
Agreement is reached, with some trepidation.
Salsa verde is sold and waltzes are twirled.
We learn the story of Loz’s family home …
Sausages are grilled and important conversations are put off.
Exploratory manoeuvres occur below decks.
Nigel gets what he asked for.
Tony discovers that some fantasies are best left as such …
… and nearly has an unwanted lunch date.
A sailor returns from the sea.
Synergies and a possible merger are explored.
Some perplexing correspondence is received.
Before the family showdown, Nigel gets the lowdown.
Tony wonders what it’s all about.
Approval comes from an unexpected quarter.
1 – Watch out for Bears
A father–daughter phone call
The insistent, rhythmic vibration against his thigh broke his concentration. With one hand he flicked the power switch on the drill press to ‘OFF’ and peeled off the mask. The other dived into the pocket of his overall and plucked out the vibrating phone.
‘Hi, Dad. How’s it going?’ The crackly voice sounded all of its 13,253 kilometres away, but he saw her infectious grin, the dimpled cheeks, as clearly as if she were standing in the same room.
‘Ella … Aww, not bad, not bad, love … You?’
‘Yeah, good! Enjoying the snowboarding here in BC. Got one hell of a sunburn up at Whistler the other weekend, though. Bit embarrassing for an Aussie chick in Canada, in winter …’
‘Sunblock, love. You don’t want a melanoma.’
‘Yesss, Daaad. Nooo, Daaad.’ Drawled in a good impression of a sulky teenager, not a 23-year-old postgrad.
‘Okay, point taken. How’s work going?’
‘Pretty good. We’ve got 250,000 tubestock ready for hardening off. We’ll be prepping the new site as soon as it thaws. The vollies are a good bunch, young and keen, not too stupid.’
‘Nobody eaten by a bear, yet?’
‘No, Dad. What is it with the bear fixation?’
‘Fear of the unknown, I guess, love. Like when foreign tourists come over here and fret about spiders and snakes. And sharks.’
‘Fair ‘nough … Mum around?’
‘At work, as usual. These days. Lot of events out there that need managing, apparently.’
‘You sound a bit pissed off.’
‘No, not really. But I guess I was kinda hoping that when I stopped work, she might wind down a bit, too.’
‘Women make their own career choices these days, Dad. You may have missed the memo.’
‘Ah, right. Noted.’ Tony swallowed his hurt.
‘Sorry, Dad. I know you’re not like that … Anyway, how’s the life of a handsome young retiree?’
‘Pretty good. I’m playing a lot more music these days, also getting back in the workshop. Just working on a baritone uke right now, as it happens.’
‘Nice. What timber?’
‘Walnut neck, walnut sides and back, spruce top.’
‘Lovely. Send me some photos when it’s finished?’
‘Just the odd daysail. Pottering around the bay. Can’t seem to get crew for racing these days. Everyone wants to crew on the big boats.’
‘Shame. You and Mum used to race every Saturday in summer, once upon a time.’
‘Yeah, well … You know, she even calls it “your boat” these days? It always used to be “our little boat”.’
‘I’m not taking sides, Dad.’
‘I know, love. I’m not asking you to.’
‘Okay. Gotta go. Love you!’
‘Love you, too, Ella. Take care. Watch out for bears.’
‘Haha! Will do, but they’re hibernating right now. Don’t let the sharks get you. Say hi to Mum for me. Bye!’
‘Bye!’ But she was gone already.
2 – In the Summer Garden
Of bugs and ballads
Where Lagan stream sings lullaby There blows a lily fair …
She frowned. Her rich contralto hung in the still summer air for seconds, fading into the background hum of bees and crickets. Pushing her long, curly grey hair behind her ear, she peered into the foliage with narrowed eyes, identifying the cause of the wilted leaves.
‘You little sods!’
Harlequin bugs at the eggplants again. She half-filled a bucket with water from the tap and knocked the little buggers in. ‘Ha!’
Satisfied, she resumed her patrol of the garden.
The twilight gleam is in her eye The night is on her hair …
Anna leaned on the weathered timber post of the side gate, silently listening, as her friend finished her rounds of the brick-paved kitchen garden.
Nor life I owe nor liberty For love is lord of all For love is lord of all.*
The song’s last echo faded. Anna called out loudly – or as loudly as the sudden lump in her throat would allow – ‘Knock knock!’
Loz looked up. ‘Hello, love! Come on in. Just in time for a cuppa.’ She hugged Anna vigorously.
‘I haven’t heard you sing for a while. You‘ve such a lovely voice.‘ Anna surreptitiously wiped the corner of her eye.
‘Good enough for singing to the chooks, I guess. Something in your eye, hun?’
‘Hm … Probably just the bright light, after doing the books all morning … Are you still playing mandolin?’
‘Aww … not really. I take it out and tune it up, now and then. Have a few plucks – ‘till something else comes along that needs doing.’
‘That’s a shame. You used to be so good.’
‘Fingertips a bit rough from working in the garden. They catch on the strings, drives me nuts. Anyhow, I never was as good as you, on the fiddle.’
‘Crap! And you know it,’ bridled Anna. ‘Maybe we should get together and play sometimes, in the evenings?’
‘Musical soirées? How delightful!’
‘Earl Grey and dainty cucumber sandwiches …’
‘Well, I was thinking more woodfired pizza and a bottle of Merlot, myself.’
‘Now you‘re talking, lady!’
*Lines from ‘My Lagan Love’, lyrics attributed to Joseph Campbell 1879–1944
3 – Three Blokes in a Jam
The beginnings of a plan
In the carpark of the Elephant & Castle, Nigel wrestled his double bass, even more unwieldy in its padded bag, into the back of his white Toyota van.
Hugh would have liked to help. Yet he knew from bitter experience to keep well out of Nigel’s way, while he was wrangling The Beast. Waiting, he ran his hand over the scratched Swift Plumbing logo on the side panel. ‘You know, that doesn’t look anything like a swift …’
Nigel muttered something fortunately inaudible, head and shoulders still in the back of the van.
Just as he emerged, Tony passed by on the way to his car.
‘Good session, guys! Always nice to have the double bass. Keeps the rest of us on track.’
‘Yeah, it was alright, wasn’t it? You’re pretty handy on that guitar, mate.’
Tony laughed, pleased. ‘I’d be better if I practised more, but cheers.’
Hugh reflected for a moment.
‘You know what, Tony? We could start a band. Play some market gigs, maybe wineries,’ he suggested, wedging his instrument case in carefully, next to The Beast.
‘Not a bad idea at that …’ responded Tony.
Nigel was sceptical. ‘We’d need a singer. You know what it’s like, playing instrumental music. Punters treat you like musical wallpaper.’
‘Ha! You’re not wrong,’ agreed Hugh. ‘I had a winery gig once. A guy came up to me in the middle of a Bach minuet and started talking. He thought I was “just noodling”. It was a little disappointing.’
‘Well, you’ve got no business playing Bach on a banjo anyway,’ Nigel observed. ‘What do you expect?’
‘Fair point, I guess …’ conceded Hugh. ‘So, it’s a pity none of us can sing for shit, then.’
The three of them nodded ruefully.
‘My ex can sing. And she plays mando,’ ruminated Nigel.
‘Yeah, Loz has got a good voice,’ agreed Hugh. ‘Her mate, Anna, who runs the Port Café, she plays fiddle.’
‘Anna Morton? More like classical violin, I thought. Used to play professionally. Heard her a few years ago down at Queenscliff. Stunning,’ chipped in Tony.
‘Oh, she’ll play a bit of bluegrass or folk, too,’ said Nigel. ‘We used to jam for hours, round the kitchen table. Nice lady.’
‘See if you can talk them into playing with us grumpy old blokes, then?’ suggested Tony.
‘Might be worth a go.’
‘If you’re … on good terms with your ex-missus, that is?’
‘Oh yeah, we get on better now than when we were married,’ said Nigel. ‘Should have got divorced earlier. It might have saved our marriage.’
4 – THE PICKIN’ CHICKENS
A band is born
The early evening sunlight, still warm, fell in slantwise through the open back door. In the backyard, hens clucked and pecked under the baleful glare of a fat, elderly tortoiseshell cat. Out on the bay, an unseen jetski pounded and revved.
Taking time out from playing, Tony, Anna, Nigel and Hugh gathered around Loz’s dented and scarred baltic pine kitchen table.
Loz returned doggedly to the vexed question: ‘So, what are we going to call this here band, then?’
‘I don’t know,’ Tony shrugged. ‘The Bellarine Dirt Band?’
‘Doesn’t that sound a bit grungy for a bluegrass band?’ wondered Anna.
‘Not really. Think of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band …’
Nobody seemed keen or convinced.
Nigel chimed in. ‘Ooh, I know! We can be the Bloody Wassernames.’
‘What?’ puzzled Anna.
‘So if the MC forgets our name, it won’t matter. “Next on stage, the … err … bloody whatsernames.”’
‘Be serious, hun,’ sighed Loz.
Hugh emerged from deep thought: ‘What about this – the Front Porch Pickers?’
‘That sounds familiar to me …’ mused Loz. ‘Didn’t we see them at Mountaingrass two years ago?’
Tony googled the name. ‘Yes, Melbourne band … Bugger it!’
‘“Bugger it”? Not exactly kid-friendly, and maybe more punk than bluegrass?’ offered Nigel.
Loz smiled weakly at her ex. ‘Any other suggestions?’
‘Okay, then, the Back Porch Pickers?’ Hugh was reluctant to give up the game entirely.
Loz and Anna weren’t convinced. ‘Sounds a bit rude, doesn’t it?’
Hugh drawled in a husky voice: ‘You can pick my back porch any time, baby …’
‘Ooh, I love it when you talk dirty,’ countered Nigel. ‘Is that a banjo – or are you just pleased to see me?’
Anna snorted. Loz sighed: ‘Honestly! Behave yourselves, you two.’
The five would-be band members sat for a few minutes in silent contemplation.
‘Got it! A flash of inspiration …’ announced Nigel.
‘Ye-e-e-s?’ Anna was sceptical.
‘The Bellarine Youth Orchestra. BYO for short.’
‘Nigel, we’re all over fifty,’ Loz objected, laughing. ‘And we’re a five-piece band, not an orchestra.’
‘Yeah, but it’s a neat acronym. And we might even get a grant!’
Anna sighed: ‘Look, we’re getting nowhere. Maybe we should just play some more.’
Hugh had been gazing around, bored, singing Do do do, lookin’ out my back doorunder his breath. ‘What breed of chooks are yours, Loz? They’re so cute … little balls of feathers …’
‘Yes, look at that one,’ pointed Anna. ‘She’s completely spherical …’
‘They’re Pekin bantams,’ explained Loz. ‘Bless their little fluffy bums!’
‘Look at ’em,’ mused Hugh. ‘Picking away …’
Anna perked up. ‘Hey … listen to this, guys: the Pickin’ Chickens! How does that grab you?’
‘Nice!’ enthused Loz. Tony googled it. ‘Yes, we’re good, looks like.’
Nigel pumped the air: ‘Yessss!’
‘The Pickin’ Chickens it is then. Excellent!’
5 – FLOTSAM
A walk on the beach and an odd discovery
TASHA’S JOURNAL, 2 FEBRUARY
Port Phillip is a very large body of water with a narrow entrance, in a part of the world with a modest tidal range. Currents at the bay’s entrance from Bass Strait, the fearsome Rip, are ferocious, but the further into the bay one ventures, the weaker and more ineffectual they become.
At Point Lonsdale and Portsea, the water scours the shoreline; at St Leonards, it doggedly gnaws away at Edwards Point.
By the time we get to Corio Bay – a bay off a bay off a bay, off a strait – the feeble longshore current gently licks the sandy, silty margins.
Still, the waters of Corio Bay spit the occasional surprise ashore. Monty, my black lab, loves to nose them out on our morning walks at Point Henry.
Flotsam of an organic, preferably stinky kind is his main focus. The rest he leaves to me.
This morning is no exception. Monty is enthusiastic about the putrescent stingray and the bedraggled pelican carcass.
A fluorescent orange tube, on the other hand, receives brief consideration as a possible throwing stick for Mum. Apparently the mouthfeel is not quite right and Stick is dropped, with an apologetic tail-wag.
I stoop to pick it up. The gaudy orange plastic is faded and chalky from long exposure to sunlight, salt water and abrasive sand. A mouthpiece reveals the original purpose as a snorkel.
The other end of the snorkel is missing, a shattered stump. Not the easiest object to break: it must have taken a fair force. A boat’s propellor or a ship’s massive, churning screw, perhaps?
The mouthpiece isn’t in good shape, either. It looks chewed. By teeth much larger than Monty’s.
6 – AL FRESCO
Making sweet music down at the Dell
‘Can you move over a bit? The sun’s starting to get me.’
Hugh stood up and stretched while Anna rearranged herself.
‘That better, darl?’
‘Great, thanks. Let’s get into it.’
‘I feel a bit exposed here.’
‘Don’t be silly. There’s hardly anyone around. I come down here and play all the time.’
‘Okay, so. Blackberry Blossom, then? In C?’
‘I’d prefer it in G.’
‘Alright, then. Banjo players, psht …’
A false start, then the music lifted and soared around the Dell, puzzling a lone dog walker down on the beach. The Dell was a natural amphitheatre, a half-moon shaped bite out of the cliff line formed by an ancient land slip.
The little timber gazebo where Hugh and Anna sat clung to the steep, wooded slope, largely hidden from passers-by but offering a grand view out over the bay.
‘What? I didn’t touch you.’
‘Not you. Mozzie.’
‘Sometimes we have to suffer for our art, Hugh.’
‘Why do they always go for me? I’m a bloody mosquito magnet.’
‘Stop complaining, darl. Cripple Creek.’
‘In B flat.’
‘B flat? Hugh, really? Why B flat?’
‘So I can sing it.’
‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’
‘Are you casting aspersions on my singing, perchance?’
‘Perish the thought, young Hugh! You have the voice of … an angel. Or something. No, it’s just that some of the lyrics are very … hillbilly.’
‘It’s a song about a Kentucky brothel. What do you expect?’
‘Hmm, you sure the good residents of Clifton Springs are ready for this?’
‘Ready as they’ll ever be.’
‘As you wish.’
The late summer afternoon progressed, the music swelled and echoed around the Dell, the sharp metallic patter of banjo arpeggios intertwined with the bittersweet song of Anna’s fiddle. Shadows lengthened and a small, curious knot of walkers gathered at the lookout, craning and peering in vain after the hidden musicians.
7 – ROCK MY BOAT
A very private chat
Hello. Couldn’t help noticing your photo. It’s … intriguing.
Intriguing? Why do you say that?
Looks a little fierce. That mask. A lot sexy. That tight black dress. I could come over and help you unmake that bed …
You’re funny, Salty. I’m not that fierce.
You’re just a li’l pussycat, then? Riiiight …
Mm but watch out for the claws. And the sharp little teeth 🙂
Noted. Sweet dreams, Pussycat.
Good night, Salty.
Mornin’, Pussycat. Dreamed of you. Feeling a little bit … aroused.
That’s perfectly natural. Men wake up aroused. soz, didn’t dream of you 😘
Darn. I’ll have to try harder.
lol please do.
Morning, Pussycat. So according to your profile, your sexual preferences include adventurous sex and skinny dipping. I’ve got a few ideas to run by you.
Oh yes? I’m interested.
Well, you know how my profile says ‘Come and rock my boat’? I meant it kinda literally. I’ve got a boat in the marina in Geelong …
soz Salty. Had to go out. Boat, that sounds like fun …
Could be a lot of fun. We go out for a sail one sunny weekday morning. It’s warm and there’s just a light breeze. We anchor off Eastern Beach. Just far enough from the beach to be safe from prying eyes.
Okay, I’m a little interested. Maybe. Tell me more.
We strip off, still a bit bashful, and slip into the cool water. Can you feel the thrill as it reaches your … private regions?
lol, maybe. So we swim around for a bit, then what? I’m worried about *your* ‘private regions’ and the cold water 😜
Don’t worry about that. After a brief kiss and cuddle in the water, you head up the boarding ladder s.l.o.w.l.y.
I’m starting to get turned on. Carry on.
Tomorrow, Jessica. A salty ol’ dog needs his sleep.
Mr Dog, don’t you dare!
Night. Jess 🙂
Good morning, Jess. Sweet dreams?
Morning, Salty. My real name’s Tasha.
Pleased to meet you, Tasha. I’m Tony. But I’m getting to like Salty. Want to carry on with our little scenario?
Sure. So we’re on your boat. Naked. What next?
You sit in the cockpit and dry your hair. I crouch down between your knees and …
It’s what it’s called. Anyhow, you use your towel to cover our dubious modesty (bit late for that?) while I explore. I taste the cool salty water running off your belly in little rivulets …
What if my husband comes by on his jetski?
Wow, Tasha, you know how to spoil the mood 😦
8 – A MAN OF LEISURE
A café dialogue, in which a husband is underestimated
The boisterous chatter of lycra-clad elderly cyclists echoed around the café, bouncing off the polished timber floors and the white walls hung with pallid watercolours. Chairs scraped, cutlery clashed and the coffee machine hissed.
Alice leaned in closer, elbows on the table. ‘So … How’s Tony these days?’
‘Oh, you know,’ Kate shrugged, surveying the room over the rim of her coffee mug. ‘Tony’s … Tony.’
‘He just seems so … directionless. Like the rudder has fallen off his little boat.’
‘Bless him. Do you think he regrets selling the business?’
‘Difficult to tell. He says he’s enjoying being “a man of leisure”.’
‘He plays music, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes, guitar. He’s pretty good, actually. He’s trying to get a band together with some friends.’
‘Oh, yes? Anyone I know?’
‘Not sure. Do you know Loz – Loreta – Marić?’
‘Know her? We were practically besties at school, then we kind of lost touch, you know how it is. She married very young. The bloke’s name was Neil …’
‘That’s the one.’
‘They got divorced a couple of years ago.’
‘Good move. I always thought he was a bit of an arse.’
‘He’s in the band too, apparently.’
‘Okaaaay … Sounds interesting. Anyway, we were talking about Tony.’
‘Yes. So, he’s got a few things going on, but nothing he seems really … passionate about. You know how he lived for that business.’
‘Yes, I do, I do,’ sighed Alice. ‘Poor Tone … Do you think he struggles with you being the main … breadwinner, I guess?’
‘He says not, but, well, Tony … I’m never quite sure what’s going on in there, these days. He always seems preoccupied.’
‘I wish mine was like that, sometimes. Oversharing is more Ben’s style.’ Alice poked pensively at her slice of carrot cake. ‘You don’t think that Tony’s … up to something, do you?’
‘An affair, you mean?’
‘Shit. Sorry, I was waaay out of line there. I didn’t mean to –‘
‘No, no, it’s okay, Al. It had crossed my mind but …’
‘Well it sounds a bit mean, but … I don’t think he has that much initiative, you know?’
Alice snorted almond chai across the table.
9 – UNSTABLE CLIFFS
Life’s a beach, sometimes it throws nasty surprises ashore
Nigel eyed the warning sign thoughtfully, then stepped over the low chainlink fence. It wasn’t as if the cliff was that unstable.
The steep path down to the beach had deteriorated since his last visit – a year ago, or two? – but was still passable with a little care. At one point a long fissure cleft the sugary marlstone, leaving jagged, crumbling edges. Hopping between secure footholds, Nigel soon found a gentler gradient and arrived in the thick, chest-high kikuyu grass at the foot of the cliff.
The path was now level but overgrown. He trod slowly and heavily, not wanting to surprise an Eastern brown, tiger, black snake or copperhead. Brushing between grey saltbush, he trod on a thick, spongy carpet of dry seagrass, then was on the beach. Deserted. The only signs of human life were an angler pottering in his tinny 500 metres off-shore, and a mussel boat working the distant aquaculture farm.
The tide was on the ebb: perfect, he thought, for completing the 12-kilometre walk to Portarlington without needing to wade.
He stripped off his shoes and socks and set off, padding along, relishing the wet firm sand underfoot.
Humming cheerfully to himself, he stopped now and then to examine a piece of flotsam: a dead toadfish, a blubbery jelly or a chunk of sunbleached driftwood. Crickets chirped, tiny waves lapped and the sun blazed down from a cloudless sky. A perfect summer’s morning by the bay.
For a while he amused himself dribbling Neptune balls along the shore – round, oval or cigar-shaped orbs which the wave action had rolled from dead seagrass. He gave one of them an enthusiastic punt – then yelped in pain: not all Neptune balls are made alike, and this one was wrapped around something heavy. A piece of brick, maybe?
The brief pain was soothed by walking ankle-deep in the clear, cool water. Soon he was padding along happily again, gazing up at the clifftops, looking forward to passing the next modest, crumbling headland and discovering the next little secluded beach – always near-identical to the ones before. He passed more curios that the sea had thrown ashore, scratching his head over a child’s bright blue pedal car – had it arrived on the beach route, floated ashore from parts unknown or been thrown over the cliff top?
From time to time there was a track leading up from the beach, which he briefly explored. Usually the exploration was unrewarding, yielding only a view of dusty paddocks and the rusty wreck of a tractor.
It was on the third such diversion that he heard dogs. The barking was distant, and seemed unlikely to have been provoked by his presence. All the same, he retreated to the beach a little faster than he would otherwise have done. He liked dogs well enough, but the prospect of meeting a mob of farm dogs alone didn’t appeal much.
By the time Nigel was on the beach, the barking was louder and closer. It sounded like at least two dogs, possibly more. Keep calm and think. Nigel looked around. Nothing much to use to fend them off, just that rotten bit of stick. No rocks. Anyway, best not to provoke them: there’s no going back once you’ve done that. Just stay calm.
Closer. Sounds like they’re at the top of the track now. They’ll be here in seconds.
His heart pounding, Nigel retreated into the water up to his knees, gripping a piece of driftwood – more a plank than a stick, and uncomfortably short.
A fox terrier shot out of the undergrowth onto the beach, yipping wildly. A deep, sonorous belling indicated that it had companions.
‘What’s all this about, then, eh?’ offered Nigel, in a gruff but friendly voice. The foxie continued to yip, but didn’t enter the sea, running up and down the waterline.
There was a crashing and two large mastiffs erupted from the saltbush. Holy fucking shit. Nigel retreated to waist depth. Don’t look directly at them. Nothing that could be construed as a challenge. If one comes at you, brain it and hold it under. Hope they don’t come together. Don’t lose your footing or you’re dog meat.
The mastiffs bounced and lumbered at the water’s edge, psyching themselves up to tackle the intruder.
‘Oi! Get here!’ roared a voice from up the track, followed by a shrill whistle. The dogs hesitated. ‘Get here, now!’
A stocky man in his 30s emerged onto the beach, wearing board shorts and a singlet and squinting from under his baseball cap. ‘Sorry, mate!’ he said. ’They wouldn’t hurt ya. Lick ya to death, maybe …’
’Okay, thanks mate,’ said Nigel, struggling to keep his voice steady. ‘I must admit, I was just a little bit worried there.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ he grinned weakly. ‘I’m fine, thanks. No worries.’ This is a public beach, you stupid sod …
‘kay. See ya then. C’mon, you mongrels!’
The dogs and their owner disappeared up the track.
Nigel stumbled along the beach, rounded the next headland and fell to his knees in the sand, his breath coming in big sobs.
10 – THAT OLD ROO-IN-THE-DAM TRICK
Nigel fails to convince
‘That’s terrible. You could have been seriously injured.’ Sophie the German WWOOFER leaned across Loz’s kitchen table earnestly.
Nigel shrugged. ‘I would have waded deeper and used the old “roo-in-the-dam” trick, if things had got serious,’ he said, cryptically.
‘Ruined damn trick, is what?’ asked Cristóbal, Sophie’s Chilean boyfriend.
‘Well, you see, when a big old roo gets chased by dogs or dingoes …’
‘Ah, a kangaroo?’
‘Yes. So the dogs are going to chase him down, but he goes into a dam or billabong, see. If the dogs are stupid enough to follow him in, he pushes their heads under water with his front paws, and holds them there, until …’
‘Until they are drunk.’ concluded Sophie.
‘Yes. And you have seen this?’
‘Err, no, not exactly … .’ Nigel’s bushman act wavered.
‘Very risky, then, I think. What if …’
Loz had listened to Nigel’s bulldust since he was a skinny, acned plumber’s apprentice. His willingness to show off for a pretty girl hadn’t diminished with age, she reflected. Actually he really hadn’t grown up much at all. Men so often didn’t.
Still, she retained enough weary affection for her ex to rescue him from the forensic questioning which she knew, from bitter first-hand experience, was to follow unless Sophie was distracted.
‘So that’s how your phone got ruined, hun?’
‘Yes, it was in my jeans pocket and took a bit of a dip.’
‘And you had to walk all the way back from Port in soaking wet jeans? It must have chafed a bit.’
‘No, no. I got the bus. The driver wasn’t too keen to let me on, but he said as long as I stood up and didn’t drip on his seats …’
‘You must report this incident to the authorities, I think,’ continued Sophie. Cristóbal nodded vigorously.
‘Nothing happened. My phone got wet, is all.’
‘Yes, but what will happen if one day a young child will walk along the beach and …’
‘Speaking of dams,’ interrupted Loz, ‘I need you to look at the pump in the top dam before you go. It’s not drawing properly and I need to keep the water up to the tomatoes.’
‘Good crop this year?’
‘Best ever. Reckon we’ll get two hundred kilos. The Romas are almost ready for picking, the Amish Paste have another two to three weeks to go.’
‘Wonderful. Yeah, I’ll take a look right now. Thanks for the tea and sympathy, love. See you, Soph and Cris.’
Loz walked out to Nigel’s ute with him. ‘You okay, hun?’ She could see that behind the Crocodile Dundee swagger, he was shaken.
‘Yeah, I’m okay, but it scared the crap out of me, to be honest, love.’ Nigel’s lip quivered. ‘Don’t think I’ll do that walk again – not without a bloody big stick.’
‘You poor darling,’ murmured Loz as she wrapped the tall man in a motherly hug. ‘Now get your arse over to the dam and fix my pump.’
11 – TROUBLE ON THE WAY
A song proves prophetic
‘Bad Moon Rising is not a bluegrass tune,’ objected Anna. ‘It just isn’t.’
‘But it’s a crowd pleaser,’ persisted Loz. ‘Remember, this is a market gig. They’re not bluegrass fans, necessarily. They don’t care. We could grass it up a bit, too. A fiddle break, maybe?’
‘Do not attempt to bribe me with fiddle breaks, lady. And “grass it up” is not a thing.’
‘Where’s your sense of adventure, sweetie?’
‘It extends as far as Clinch Mountain Backstep and Cherokee Shuffle and no further.’
‘Come on, darl. Be a sport!’
‘Oh, all right, then …‘
Ten minutes and three attempts later, the Pickin’ Chickens lapsed into bemused silence.
‘I think it’s still lacking something,’ pondered Tony.
‘Any sort of musical merit?’ suggested Anna.
‘What about if we played it in three-four time, as a slow waltz?’ suggested Nigel. ‘I-see-a bad-moon-a risin’ … I see trouble-on-the waaay … I see earthquakes-and lighting … I see bad-times-to daaay.’
‘Ouch. Some things can’t be unheard, mate.’
‘The thing about a crowd pleaser, hun,’ Loz pointed out, ‘is that it’s a song that the audience knows and loves. Not something completely unrecognisable which happens to have the same words.’
‘I’ve never been so insulted,’ Nigel huffed theatrically.
‘Then you probably don’t get out enough,’ said Hugh. ‘Let’s take a drinks break.’
‘Bloody good idea!’
They put down their instruments, retrieved their glasses and stubbies from the table and filed out onto the terrace. Night had fallen and the three-quarter moon, bad or otherwise, had indeed arisen. A gentle breeze stirred the casuarinas, silhouetted in silver.
‘Sure is. Though the forecast was for storms.’
‘BOM gets it wrong again.’
‘So it would seem.’
A few minutes of desultory chatter and laughter followed. Old friends easy in each other’s company.
‘Looking a bit interesting over there to the north, but.’ Tony pointed to an impenetrable black wall advancing over the bay, suddenly blotting out the three peaks of the You Yangs. A silent slash of light split the cloud from top to bottom.
‘Ferk is right. Look at this.’ Tony handed Loz his phone. The BoM radar showed a thick mottled band of blue, green and yellow scything downwards, spattered with red amoebae, some centred with black. A textbook line squall with intense thunderstorms embedded in the vanguard, likely hailstorms.
Loz clapped her hands to her face. ‘My tomatoes!’
12 – GREEN TOMATOES
A Chilean WWOOFer has a bright idea
Soft fresh leaves underfoot, the fruity, spicy tang of crushed tomato foliage as she made her way between the tall vines. Her boots crunched through little drifts of hail still unmelted on the damp ground, shuffled fallen fruit aside.
The pumpkins had copped it big time, the large parasol leaves shot holed or broken.
As far as she could see, the polytunnel was intact. Slightly askew, maybe? Her torch shone on a gaping rent in the solarweave. Loz was momentarily impressed with the evidence of the storm’s violence. That woven plastic was pretty much indestructible. The eggplant and capsicum bushes within looked a little windblown, but otherwise fine.
She found Cristóbal at the bush tomato patch. It was flattened, a mat of crushed leaves and stalks. The young Chilean was picking gingerly through the detritus.
‘How’s it looking? Very bad?’
‘Not good,’ he stood up, clutching a handful of pink oblong fruit. ‘I’m very sorry, Loretta. Lo siento mucho.’
‘Don’t worry, hun,’ she tried to keep her voice level, without tremor. ‘As soon as it gets properly light, we have to pick what we can.’ She glanced at the eastern sky, already a pale, washed out blue, white at the horizon, foretelling the dawn. A busy shadow in gumboots, Sophie clattered and clumped around the shipping container tool shed, preparing wheelbarrows, secateurs and long-handled loppers.
By eight o’clock the sun was high in the clear blue sky and they had a full assessment of the damage. All of the Roma tomato plants were broken and had to come out. About a quarter of the fruit, already ripe, was trashed, broken and needed to be composted. Half was pockmarked by hail or otherwise lightly damaged, the rest, mostly the greener, harder fruit, was intact.
The big, pear shaped Amish Paste, a beautiful juicy cooking tomato with a rich taste and a smooth delicate skin, had fared even worse, even though most of the fruit was hard and green. The tall vines had received the full force of the hailstones, some of them marble-sized, driven by hurricane force gusts. At least half of the fruit lay on the ground.
By eleven they had been working for five hours non-stop, and Loz called a coffee break, handed round a packet of biscuits in lieu of breakfast. They sat on upended buckets in the barn, contemplating the fruit on the tarps, triaged into three piles for each variety: sound ripe or nearly ripe, sound green or with a blush, damaged but salvagable. Along one wall, whole tomato bushes hung upside-down from the rafters; their green fruit would ripen naturally as the plants slowly withered.
A crunch of tyres on gravel announced Nigel’s arrival. Moments later his long, spare form appeared in the doorway. ‘Sorry, I couldn’t get here earlier. Emergency call-out. How’s it looking, love?’
‘Well, it could be worse, but it could have been a hell of a lot better. We’ve lost about sixty kilos of ripe tomatoes.’
‘Quite. We’ll still have enough Romas for bottling, and a few Amish for sauce. But what the hell to do with all this green fruit, I just don’t know. A lot of it is too green to ripen, and with the skin damage, it will probably rot soon. This was going to be a good cash crop, and now look at it …’ her voice quavered for the first time that morning.
‘Salsa verde,’ suggested Cristóbal. ‘Mi yaya, grandmother, she make a good salsa verde, very delicious. With tomatoes, not tomatillos, olive oil and garlic. Chili.’
’Nice one, mate.’ Nigel turned to Loz. ‘What do you reckon? Extra labour, of course, but it will sell for more than raw fruit. It will keep a lot longer, too.’
‘But we don’t have a licensed kitchen,’ objected Loz. ‘You can’t prepare cooked food for sale just anywhere.’
Nigel considered this. ‘What about Anna’s café? That’s got a commercial kitchen.’
‘But she needs it to run her business, hun.’
‘Not today she doesn’t. The café doesn’t open on Mondays. I’ll get on to her now.’
‘It will be a hell of a lot of work. We need at least a hundred new jars. This afternoon. We’ll be working till midnight.’
‘No probs. I’ll get on to Ben while I’m at it. He has pallets of jars stacked in his shed, for his honey. Yaya’s Salsa Verde. It has a ring to it. Gotta be worth ten bucks a jar, of anyone’s money!’
13 – RHYMES WITH ‘VERDE’
A saucy problem
Anna put down the ladle and the funnel and rubbed her tired eyes with the back of her hand. ‘That’s the lot. All done. And just so as you know: I never want to peel, core and chop another green tomato as long as I live.’
The air in the café kitchen was thick with the sharp, spicy aroma of cumin, vinegar, garlic, jalapeños, fresh coriander and many, many green tomatoes.
Loz handed Anna, Sophie and Cristóbal generously filled glasses of shiraz. ‘There you go. Cheers, me dears! Thanks for a job well done!’
They surveyed the neat rows of jars on the stainless steel worktop, each filled with salsa verde according to Cristóbal’s grandmother’s recipe (with a few liberties taken, due to exigencies of time and place).
‘A hundred and forty-six jars. That’s quite a lot of salsa verde,’ mused Anna, sipping her wine appreciatively.
‘You’re not wrong there, hun.’
‘How will we sell it all?’ wondered Sophie.
‘I’ve been worrying about that,’ said Loz. ‘I had customers lined up for fresh ripe tomatoes, which most of them aren’t going to get now. Somehow, I doubt they’ll all want salsa verde instead.’
‘I’ll take some,’ offered Anna. ‘I could sell … oh … about 20 jars, I reckon. Ali’s Provedore in Queenscliff will take some, too, for sure … There will be others. I’ll ask around.’
‘You’ve done more than enough already, hun,’ protested Loz, squeezing her lightly and affectionately round the waist. ‘You’ve been a bloody marvel.’
‘Don’t be silly. It’s no bother at all.’
‘Your band will play a jig at the farmers market next Saturday …,’ began Cristóbal hesitantly.
‘Gig,’ corrected Sophie. ‘Jig is a Celtic dance tune …’
‘Gig, jig, no importa …’ Cristóbal, flushed with pride at the success of his Yaya’s recipe, was learning to stand up for himself. ‘Why do you not sell your salsa verde at the market?’
‘It’s an interesting idea …’ said Loz doubtfully. ‘But we’re there to play bluegrass, not sell condiments.’
‘Why not both? We can sell salsa in between sets. We’ll write a song about Yaya’s Salsa Verde, an advertising jingle!’ laughed Anna. ‘What rhymes with “verde”?’
They looked at each other. The clock ticked.
‘Sturdy,’ offered Loz at last.
‘Maybe we don’t need a rhyme.’
14 – RIVERSIDE
Testing the water
He looks much like his photos. Mid-fifties, about five ten, solid build, carrying a few extra pounds, but carrying them well. His light olive skin reveals Mediterranean ancestry (Italian father, Croatian mother, he mentions). Short, black hair, heavily greying at the temples. Grey eyes, long lashes. Clean-shaven with a strong chin, a cute dimple in the middle. A strong nose, slightly aquiline. A wide, sensual mouth, quick to twist in a wry grin. Good, regular teeth except for a chipped incisor. Laughter lines around the eyes.
He rises to greet me with an eager smile, the faintest hint of a blush. His handshake is firm. (A powerful but delicate hand.) He has made a little effort, not too much: open-necked white shirt, grey chinos, black leather boots.
We both smirk slightly at the formality of the introduction, but neither of us leans forward for a kiss. We sit at the table on the secluded riverside terrace (good choice) and order coffee from the brisk waitress.
What the photos missed is the boyish vulnerability. From his eloquent, explicit banter online and our short, rushed phone conversations, I expected him to be cocky, self-assured, arrogant even.
In fact, he’s uncertain, wavering between enthusiasm (when he talks of his boat, his music, his daughter in Canada) and hesitancy. His eyes sparkle as he speaks, then cloud with self-doubt: Have I said too much?
A passionate man who has been disappointed in life, maybe in love.
Darling man, of course you haven’t said too much.
I shall have to be very careful with this one.
She was ten minutes late. I was as nervous as a teenager on his first date, waiting for her to arrive. Then she was suddenly there, and it all fell into place.
The photos must have been a few years old, I think. I try to stop thinking that: it’s ungenerous.
Still, she is an undeniably attractive woman. Sexy, even. Closer to 60 than the 52 in her profile. Maybe. I’m a lousy judge.
Her hair is chestnut brown (dyed, I guess), not blonde as in the photos, and styled in a neat bob, not worn long. She had prepared me for that, but it still takes me a moment to adjust. I preferred the loose blonde curls.
She is about five foot five, has a nice figure with shapely hips and breasts, an elastic, confident stride. A businesslike handshake to match the business blouse and jacket. She’s a scientist at the animal health lab, I learn.
Pale lipstick carefully applied. (Soft, very kissable lips!)
Her face is serious, open. When she speaks, she chooses her words carefully and tends to frown a little in thought. The effect is endearingly, naïvely earnest. Not at all the flirty, seductive man-killer I was expecting from her profile.
Still, there’s a mischievous humour in those brown eyes, which takes me unawares more than once. (Her husband doesn’t really own a jet-ski.)
We chat for an hour. Gazing intently into each other’s eyes, I later realise. The plan was to give the appearance of a business meeting, but I don’t think we would have fooled an interested observer for a moment. That waitress who brought our coffee was definitely suppressing a grin. I guess this is a popular place for trysts.
I feel powerfully attracted, aroused by her presence, and judging by the flush on her face when we part, the sentiment is reciprocated.
I think we’re going to do this. My heart is thumping at the thought of undressing her, her undressing me.
And yet … this is not my life, not what I do, not at all. The idea of sex with a woman who isn’t Kate seems absurd, surreal. It has been such a long, long time.
I have come unmoored.
15 – PADDLE FASTER
I can still hear banjos
‘It still seems a bit soft,’ said Nigel. ‘I think we need to pump it up a bit more.’
Hugh eyed the inflatable canoe doubtfully as Nigel pivoted vigorously up and down from the waist, operating the hand pump. ‘Are you sure this thing is actually safe to go on the water? What if it hits a rock and gets a puncture?’
‘It’s tough as,’ reassured Nigel. ‘It’s got seven buoyancy cells too, so it would still float even if one went down. Anyway, we’ve got PFDs, life jackets.’
‘So what you’re basically telling me, in your usual roundabout fashion, is that it’s quite possible for it to hit a rock and get a puncture …’
‘Look around, Hugh. Do you see any sharp rocks? Waiting to rip the bottom out of our frail craft and drag us into the watery depths? This is Corio Bay.’
‘Who knows what lurks below the surface …’ muttered Hugh grimly.
‘Hugh, love, we’ll have to paddle out half a mile to get out of our depth. If we get a puncture, we’ll get out and walk home. Silly little man!’ Nigel kissed his partner gently on the forehead. The easiest part to reach, as Hugh was a foot shorter. They made a comical couple, he often thought: the big, loose-limbed, blond-haired Aussie and the compact, muscular Vietnamese man.
At length the pumping and prodding was done, the last predictions of doom had been uttered and the pair sat in their inflatable craft, gliding over the weedy shallows. Hugh in the bow, upright and tense, and Nigel in the stern, his long legs folded into the canoe, sunburnt knees sticking up, leaning back into his seat.
‘Da-da dee-dah dee-dah DEE-dah dum,’ sang Nigel, approximating the Dueling Banjos theme. ‘Paddle faster — I can still hear banjos!’
Hugh wasn’t in the mood for Nigel’s banjo jokes. ‘Whoa, shit … That wave almost tipped us in.’
‘Hugh, just chill. Don’t grab the gunwales, or you will tip us in. Sit in the centre of your seat, like I showed you, and relax.’
Nigel was an accomplished paddler, the veteran of several long canoe camping trips on the rivers of Victoria and New South Wales. Privately, he was unimpressed with the sea-keeping qualities of his new craft, an impulse buy from a camping store.
The problem was, sharing Hugh’s cramped inner-city apartment, there was nowhere to keep a proper canoe or even a plastic kayak. So the inflatable would have to do.
After half an hour of patient coaching, Hugh had relaxed sufficiently to start enjoying the steady, moderate exertion of paddling. He no longer saw every gentle wobble of the canoe as a malign attempt to pitch them overboard.
They had moved away from the weed into deeper water, turquoise over the sandy bottom. There was a soft offshore breeze and the water had become rilled and facetted. Hugh could feel the gentle warmth of the afternoon sun on his bare legs and arms and the canoe surging with Nigel’s reassuring powerful, regular stroke.
‘You know, I could get to like this. It really is quite … pleasant,’ he observed over his shoulder.
‘I knew you’d love it.’
‘I said “like”. And “could”.’
‘Sorry, can’t hear you. Must be the wind.’
‘What are all those dead fish doing on the bottom?’ asked Hugh, as they passed offshore of the boat ramp, some time later.
Nigel glanced over the side. ‘Being dead.’
‘No shit? Thanks for your expert opinion.’
‘No worries. But seriously, it looks like someone has filleted a bunch of snapper and chucked the carcasses back in. Mongrels.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘Firstly, it’s illegal. They’ve taken more than the limit and are trying to cover it up, by not bringing the whole fish ashore.’
‘Secondly, it’s reckless, because that there is a swimming beach.’
‘Fish carcasses attract fish. Big, bitey fish sometimes.’
‘Sharks? I didn’t think there were any sharks in the bay.’
‘Yeah. A lot of people think that.’
‘And meanwhile, we’re bobbing around out here on this inflatable banana …’
‘Do not disrespect my proud and seaworthy craft, young fellow. I shall have you flogged and sent to my cabin.’
‘Begging your pardon, Admiral.’
‘Fuck. What is that.’
‘Piss off, Nigel.’
A long, dark shadow passed beneath the canoe. Swift, serene, as long as their boat.
16 – RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Private chats and secret misgivings
JESSICA2941 11.34 a.m.
It was lovely to meet you yesterday. I find you rather cute, Mr Dog.
SALTY.C.DOG 11.38 a.m.
Same here. You, I mean lol. I’d like to take this further. If you’re still interested?
JESSICA2941 11.59 a.m.
I’d like that too. But we need to set a few ground rules first.
SALTY.C.DOG 12.38 p.m.
No worries. What do you have in mind?
JESSICA2941 12.39 p.m.
OK, Salty. Be warned: serious stuff coming up … Ready?
SALTY.C.DOG 12.41 p.m.
JESSICA2941 12.53 p.m.
I want to enhance my sex life, add fun and sparkle. I am NOT looking for love. I am NOT looking for a replacement for my husband. He and I have an ‘arrangement’, but we respect each other’s feelings, play by the rules. I love him and he will always come first.
With this in mind: I will not accept any communications from you outside this app, and if you try to contact me at work, through social media, whatever, I will block you and you will NEVER hear from me again. Please confirm that you understand and accept this.
SALTY.C.DOG 1.15 p.m.
Message received and understood. That’s all fair and reasonable. It’s how I want to play too.
JESSICA2941 1.16 p.m.
Lovely! I’m free Wednesday afternoons after 2.
SALTY.C.DOG 1.16 p.m.
Excellent! I have a cunning plan …
JESSICA2941 4 minutes ago
I can’t wait to hear it 😉
SALTY.C.DOG 2 minutes ago
I’ll be in touch.
JESSICA2941 Just now
Mr Dog, you are a tease! I like that 💋
SALTY.C.DOG Just now
Tony put down his phone. ‘That’s how I want to play too’, he mused. Listen to yourself, mate. So glib, so sleazy. Such a load of crap. I have no idea what I want, or if I’m even playing. This thing is developing its own momentum.
Tasha turned off her tablet. ‘Ground rules,’ for fuck’s sake. An ‘arrangement’. I sound like a heartless bitch. I’m playing with this poor man’s affections, while Max is off shagging his 25-year-old research assistant. Is this what our life has become? Tit-for-tat acts of bastardry?
17 – SATURDAY MORNING
At the market, where salsa is green and ducks are slightly concerned
‘Wek-wak. Wek-wak-WAK!’ A small flock of white ducks waddled hastily out of the path of squealing toddlers. Bantam hens scratched and pecked, scratched and pecked, scratched and pecked in the grass. Two baby goats in pyjamas bounced around their pen stiff-legged as if on springs. Lop-eared rabbits submitted to the clumsy caress of pudgy young hands, big dark eyes gazing in placid concern.
Outside the petting zoo, parents sat in small groups on strawbales and chatted, while their older children raced around, turned cartwheels on the grass and negotiated byzantine rules for games of tag. Two teenagers scowled into their phones, cursing the unaccustomed morning sun.
Shoppers inspected the wares at the ragged oval of stalls, from hot pies to cold meats, local walnuts and olives to goat milk soap — Organic and Palm Oil Free. The thirsty, caffeine-deficient line at the Coffee Guy’s van grew longer. ‘Two double-shot lattes for Sally!’
Over by the band marquee, a handsome young couple, he dark and Latin, she pale and red-haired, danced to the sweet slow beat of the Tennessee Waltz, gliding and whirling in rapt, effortless synchronicity. Other, less graceful beings looked on in admiration or envy according to their nature, swaying a little to the music.
The band fell silent and desultory applause rippled around the market.
A tall spare figure, improbably dressed in battered straw hat, dungarees and steel-capped Blundstones, stepped out from behind the double bass, swept off his hat and bowed to the dancers.
‘And now, folks, line up and get your salsa verde!’
The Pickin’ Chickens struck up ‘Boil ’em Cabbage Down’ while Nigel capered on the grass, singing:
Get that chicken sizzlin’, boys!
Grill them cutlets brown!
Buy Yaya’s Salsa Verde –
It’s the finest sauce in town!
Sophie and Cristóbal resumed their duties at the small table with the large pyramid of salsa jars, as the crowd of amused and slightly bemused shoppers grew.
‘Oof!’ Anna plumped herself down on a conveniently vacant strawbale in the shade, joined by Loz.
‘Your young couple are real treasures, darl,’ Anna observed, waving towards Sophie and Cristóbal.
‘I know! Such sweeties! I told them a thousand times that it was the weekend and they must take time off, but they insisted on coming to help out. I’m really going to miss them …’
‘Heading north for the winter?’
‘Queensland. Next month.’
‘How will you manage the autumn harvest and prepping the onion beds? And making up all the CSA boxes? It’s too much for you alone.’
‘I’ve got another WWOOFer coming after Easter, and Ruby’s back home for a few weeks, so she’ll muck in. Don’t worry, hun.’
Anna kept her scepticism to herself. Ruby (aka Princess Ruby) and ‘muck in’ didn’t sit well in the same sentence.
Loz changed the subject. ‘Did Nige and Hugh tell you about the shark?’
‘Only about a hundred times. Bigger than the boat, Hugh says. Do you think it really was?’
‘A big shark? Could have been. Or a dolphin, or a seal. Or a stingray. According to the coastguard. Nige says “bollocks” to that, of course. The Corio Courier isn’t interested in running a story, either.’
‘I’d have thought this was right up their alley. “Shark menaces paddlers!” I can see the headline now,’ Anna mused. ‘Nige and Hugh posing with their blow-up banana, as Hugh calls it.’
‘A shark scare isn’t good for real estate or tourism, I guess … which is where the paper gets its money from.’
‘True … Hugh says he’ll never get in that thing again. He had a real shock, I think, shark or not.’
‘You and Hugh still practising together, hun?’
‘Yes, when we can fit it in. He’s such a lovely guy.’
‘Not in that way, silly! He only has eyes for Nigel.’
‘It’s mutual. Nige adores him. Funny how things turn out …’
‘You never knew he was gay?’
‘Bi. Well, there were hints, but he was always flirting with women, so …’ Loz shrugged.
‘Must have been a bit of a shock when …’
‘Shh. Here he comes.’
‘Come on, ladies!’ called Nigel. ‘The next set is about to begin and your presence is required. Get those honey buns over here!’
‘I’ll give him honey buns …’ sighed Loz, getting up. ‘C’mon, let’s do this …’
‘Just a mo. You’ve got straw all over your honey buns … there, all good!’
‘Thanks, Anna. Let me check you. Good to go … Where’s Tony?’
‘Over there, fiddling with his phone.’
‘Again? Oi! Tony! Come on, mate! Next set!’
‘He seems to be in a world of his own, these days,’ whispered Anna.
‘Yeah. Something not quite right with our Tone, I fear …’
18 – A Place by the Bay
Loz Marić’s backstory
When Lucija Novak and Petar Marić married in 1970, Loreta was already a gentle rounding of her mother’s young belly.
It wasn’t an auspicious time to be starting a family in rural Bosnia, as the rickety Yugoslav economy lurched from one crisis to the next. Conversely, there were good jobs on offer in Australian manufacturing, and the two countries had just signed a migration agreement.
The Novak and Marić families scraped together enough money to get their daughter and son started in that Lucky Country on the other side of the globe. Neighbours whispered that the precocious progress of ‘The Bump’ was a motivating factor for the young couple’s hurried departure for parts discreetly distant.
After a brief stint cutting sugar cane in Queensland, Petar settled into a steady job in the Ford stamping plant in Geelong, while Lucija qualified as a nurse. There was good money to be had and the shifts were plentiful. Perhaps that was why Loreta remained an only child. The next two decades were busy, joyful and exhausting. A bright kid, Loreta — Loz to her mates — went smoothly through school and college.
By their early forties, Lucija and Petar Marić had savings enough to buy land on the Bellarine Peninsula outside the seaside village of Portarlington. They found a six-hectare sloping block with magnificent views northwards across the Bay and set themselves up to farm, as generations of Marićs and Novaks had done before them, back in the Old Country.
They built a modest brick-veneer, single-storey house and planted olives and vines in the fertile, well-drained soil. Then watched the TV screen in mute horror as their homeland tore itself apart.
The thousand-year-old village where uncounted generations of Novaks and Marićs had lived was looted and torched. Lucija’s two brothers perished in the war, the one fighting the Serbs, the other the Croats, their former allies. What happened to Petar’s sister and niece one night, at the hands of drunken militiamen, was alluded to only in oblique terms within the family.
Petar and Lucija had escaped the conflict, but could not outrun its impact. Bustling, ebullient Lucija turned swiftly grey and haggard, dying of ovarian cancer in ’96. Petar followed his wife to the grave the next year, as his strong, brave heart gave out under too much sorrow. Loz always said that her parents were casualties of war.
She and Nigel took over the family farm. Not what a young graphic designer with a burgeoning career necessarily wanted to do with her life, but she felt an obligation to her parents’ dream. Nigel’s plumbing job was bringing in good money, more than enough to support two thrifty people.
An enthusiastic, hands-on young couple, they renovated and extended the cramped yellow-brick house, adding single-storey wings to east and west and a second storey to the original building. The result was a little odd, Loz thought: perhaps an architect would have been a good investment.
Still, it was a spacious and comfortable home. The farmhouse now formed a deep U around a central courtyard, open to the north. The views across the Bay to the three modest bumps of the You Yangs were enhanced and framed by plantings of sheokes and wattles.
House building became nest building, and twins Ruby and Lucy followed.
The olives flourished, but the vineyard proved more trouble than its worth in the hands of two dilettantes. In time the mildewed, unthrifty vines were ripped out to make way for a paddock and stable for the twins’ patient pony Star, two alpacas Juan and Juanita, and a foul-tempered Shetland gelding, Jock.
When Loz put the house on the market two decades later — a hasty decision as her marriage disintegrated — the real-estate agent’s billboard announced ‘Sweeping Ocean and Mountain Views.’ It was partly the sheer joyous absurdity of the hyperbole which changed her mind, she later admitted. About the sale, not the divorce.
Instead, she did a Permaculture design course and reimagined the farm — in reality just a farmlet — as a community-supported agricultural enterprise. It was the first of its kind on the Bellarine Peninsula and gently derided by her farming neighbours as ‘the hippy commune’. An assortment of young WWOOFers came and went with the seasons, feeding the myth.
19 – After the Gig
Conversations after dark
The recent rain had brought out a late flush of redeye cicadas. As dusk fell, the males redoubled their calling; revving up slowly to a vast, pulsating, hissing, rattling barrage of sound as they advertised for mates.
The big Baltic pine dining table was carried out to the courtyard to take advantage of the warm evening. With both ends extended, there was room to seat a dozen guests. Sophie and Cristóbal bedecked it with overlapping sarongs in lieu of a tablecloth, then set out the cutlery.
Nigel set a match to the neatly constructed wigwam of twigs in the firepit. It caught immediately as the dry eucalypt leaves in the centre ignited, fragrant smoke rising vertically in the still air. ‘Man make fire!’ he announced.
Loz handed him the barbecue tongs. ‘Man cook meat,’ she instructed.
‘Mammoth steaks again, babe?’
‘Free-range pork and fennel snags from that cute butcher at the market, actually. And don’t forget the veggie and halloumi skewers. And keep the vegan ones for Sophie separate. Oh, and Kate brought some lamb chops, I think …’
Tony looked up from his seat at the end of the table, notes and coins neatly piled in front of him. ‘Salsa sales: five hundred and four dollars …’
‘… tips for the band, eighty-six dollars fifty.’
‘Well I won’t give up the day job just yet,’ Hugh observed. ‘Where do you want these salads, Loz?’
‘Disappointed with the tips?’ asked Kate, as she poured Anna and herself cool, pale glasses of Pinot Grigio.
‘No, it’s early days yet. We’re doing this for fun, and to get experience. Paid gigs will come, hopefully … But we do need to get better at working the crowd. We were too busy having fun ourselves, I think.’
‘Tony says there was a good turnout at the market.’
‘Yes, quite busy later in the morning. You should have seen the petting zoo, Kate. Baby goats! Adorable!’
Kate wrinkled her nose in scepticism. ‘Not a big goat fan … but it’s a shame I couldn’t make it.’
‘Yes. Conference to organise in Sydney, delegates from all over the world. I’m on the six o’clock flight from Avalon in the morning. So I’d better not have too many of these.’
‘Not worried about this new virus thingy?’
Kate shrugged. ‘Not worried, but we’re keeping an eye on things. Looks like it could be another SARS.’
‘Apparently there are cases in Italy now.’
‘Yes, I heard that.’
‘So you’re going to see the folks next week …’ began Nigel, turning the sausages and making room for the shish-kebabs on the sizzling grill.
‘That’s right,’ confirmed Hugh. ‘Gotta be done from time to time.’
‘Isn’t it about time I met them?’
‘Pffff …’ Hugh puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. ‘You could … but I don’t know if it’s the right time. It’s … awkward.’
Nigel turned to face his boyfriend. ‘You’re always cagey about me meeting your family. It’s a bit … it’s a bit hurtful, you know.’
‘No-no-no, please don’t take it like that, love. It’s not you, it’s … them.’
‘Nigel, sweetheart, can you please stop waving that sausage around?’
‘I’ve said before, they’re very conservative.’
‘You mean, homophobic?’
‘Dad’s okay with it, how I am, but Mum still thinks it’s some kind of lifestyle choice and I’ll grow out of it.’
‘Grow out of it? You’re fifty-two.’
‘Yeah, about time I met a nice Vietnamese girl and settled down. To continue the royal bloodline.’
‘Royal bloodline? Jesus …’
‘Yeah, don’t get me started on that. Look, can we talk about all this some other time?’
‘Okay. But we are going to talk about it, right?’
‘Right … What the bloody hell are you doing to that lamb chop? It’s burnt at one end and raw at the other.’
‘So now the boy who can’t boil an egg is Gordon Ramsay?’
‘Brought you another Coopers.’ Kate waved the frosty, green-labelled beer bottle at her husband.
‘Thanks, love.’ They stood, shoulder resting gently against shoulder, looking into the fire.
‘I’m going to have to go,’ she said after a while. ‘Can you get a lift home, if you want to stay on for a bit?’
‘Yeah, no probs. All packed for tomorrow?’
‘Yes. So I’ll be back Friday evening.’
‘Hope it all goes well.’
‘Thanks … Something’s not right.’
He glanced at her. ‘Not sure what you mean.’
‘You. Us. We’re not how we used to be.’
‘Been a long time, love. Things change. People change.’
‘When I come home, we need to talk.’
‘Yes, we do. When you come home.’
‘See you later,’ she kissed him softly on the cheek. ‘Don’t get drunk.’
‘I won’t. I’ll just stay on an hour or two. Nigel and Hugh will drop me off.’
‘Okay.’ She gave him a last thoughtful glance before making the rounds with her goodbyes.
20 – Uncharted Waters
A short, sweet voyage into the unknown
‘It’s a bit smaller than I expected,’ observed Tasha. ‘Very pretty, though,’ she added tactfully, trying to conceal her scepticism.
‘Oh, it’s quite a good size, really,’ said Tony, with a slight defensive note in his voice. ‘It just looks small in comparison with the neighbours. Eight metres is really all you need, to have a lot of fun.’
Tasha regarded the wooden yacht rocking gently in its marina pen. The varnished coachroof gleamed almost painfully in the afternoon sun, the spotless cream topsides reflected in the rippled water. This little boat was clearly loved by its owner.
‘I’m sure you’re right. I’m looking forward to it. The fun.’
She turned her head and appraised him silently, her brown eyes visible through the lightly tinted sunglasses under the white baseball cap.
Not really dark enough to block the glare off the water, and probably not polarised, a small, practical part of his mind thought. Once an optician, always an optician.
He stepped aboard with the confident agility of long use.
Nice legs, she thought, observing his tanned, muscled calves. Those short trousers and boat shoes really suit him …
She wondered whether her blue sleeveless dress and dainty white espadrilles were suitable sailing attire. Probably I look silly.
She had been reluctant to admit that this was her first time on board a yacht. No point in ceding the upper hand so soon …
‘Both feet on the outside first,’ he instructed, turning to help her aboard.
Okay, so he knows. No point in trying to act like a seasoned yachtswoman.
‘Hold on to this …’ patting the furled genoa. ‘Now step over the rail … that’s right. Don’t worry, I’ve got you – ‘
He grasped her upper arm firmly as she stepped over the rail, holding the warm, bare flesh perhaps a little longer than strictly necessary for safety. Their eyes met and held the gaze.
‘Follow me along the side deck,’ he said, breaking away reluctantly, turning his flushed face from her. ‘You can hold on to this stay and this grab rail on the cabin roof, but not this sheet. It’s loose, see? Mind you don’t trip on the headsail track.’ Trying to be matter-of-fact and seamanlike, he could hear the tremor in his own voice.
Stepping down into the cockpit, he unlocked the hatch, fumbling a little with the key in the padlock. Then he stood aside for her to look down into the tidy little cabin, upholstered and wood-lined. ‘Welcome aboard!’
He’s so proud. How sweet …
He descended the companionway, showing her how to climb down the narrow steps safely, like a ladder.
‘Would you like to come down here? Please.’ His voice hoarse.
21 – Meeting the Nguyens
A difficult choice
‘Ten-thirty tomorrow morning, then, Mrs Wilson … Yes, yes … I’ll bring the new toilet with me … No, you’ll have to … err, make other arrangements while the silicone dries … Just a few hours … Right-o. Bye now … Yes, right … No … Bye!’
Nigel pulled a face at his phone and placed it on the little mosaic coffee table with a sigh. He lifted his coffee cup to his lips and grimaced again: stone cold.
Hugh’s apartment might be tiny, but the location was worth the million-dollar price tag, atop a white-stuccoed, pantiled Italianate villa high on the hillside overlooking Eastern Beach. Nestled into the slope of the roof, the little balcony offered shelter and a superb vantage point.
Nigel gazed out through the crowns of stately palm trees and over sloping lawns, down to the semi-circular sea baths with their fountain, café and gaggles of picnickers and bathers. Even on this Wednesday afternoon outside school holidays, the waterfront was busy.
The Bay sparkled and the moored yachts swung idly in the mild breeze. A straggle of school dinghies issued forth with a safety RIB worrying at their heels.
The sound of a key in the front door, then leather-soled shoes clicking on the marble. A thump as a laptop bag landed on the sofa. Then Hugh’s close-cropped head appeared around the balcony doorframe: ‘Honey, I’m home!’ A perfunctory kiss on the forehead. Nigel reached his long arm around his partner’s waist and pulled him close. ‘Good.’
‘Have you left me any lunch?’
‘Of course. I picked up a fresh baguette on my way home. There’s Brie and salad in the fridge, and that tapenade I made. How’d it go?’
‘Good, so far. Complex job, though.’ Hugh’s profession as an insurance broker often took him out to clients’ properties. In this case, a thoroughbred stud farm near Kyneton.
‘Want some?’ indicating the baguette.
‘Thanks, I’ve had plenty,’ declined Nigel. ‘Anyway, I prefer the way I make them.’ Hugh’s idea of a filled baguette was to saw the bread roughly in half and stuff a wedge of cheese in it, with a tiny scrap of lettuce leaf poked in as an afterthought. Nigel’s was an elaborately constructed artwork with at least eight ingredients.
Hugh shrugged and commenced munching, stretched out in his deckchair, leather-shod feet on the balustrade, white shirt open at the neck and loosened tie slung carelessly over his shoulder.
‘So. You want to meet the folks.’ Brushing crumbs off his belly.
‘Sure. Why not?’
‘I can think of at least two reasons why not, one of them being Mum and the other being Dad. But … let’s do this thing anyway.’
Hugh leaned forward in his chair. ‘That Tony’s yacht? It looks a bit like it.’
‘Don’t change the subject, naughty little man. When?’
‘This Saturday afternoon?’
‘That’s right. It’s Dad’s 80th birthday. A good chance to meet the whole lot of them in one go, I thought.’
‘This Saturday afternoon when the Cats are playing the Suns?’
‘Ah … well what’s more important? Meeting my family or a preseason footy game?’
Nigel’s expression was eloquence enough.
22 – Into the Blue
Fantasy meets reality
The little boat nosed out of the marina, its diesel engine purring softly.
‘It’s just lovely out here. I can’t believe I’ve lived in Geelong all these years and never been out on the Bay … What are those little boats doing on the beach there? I can see sails.’
‘That’s the school dinghies. The Nippers go out on Wednesday afternoons. They bob around and capsize a lot, with a safety boat watching over them like a mother duck. Don’t worry, they won’t bother us. We’ll head over the other side of the pier.’
Tasha snuggled into his side. ‘Are we really going to go skinny dipping, Salty? In broad daylight, off the Geelong Waterfront?’
‘Getting cold feet, Tash?’ he mocked, gently.
’No, no … but you don’t have to go through with this, you know. Just because you said you would. It’s not a test of your manliness,’ she looked at him with a half-frown, squeezed his thigh.
He laughed. ‘No, I know that. You may have noticed, I’m not the macho type. But it will be fun! Anyhow, we can go over and anchor. Then decide what we want to do. No pressure. Okay?’
The sun shone down from a cloudless sky, glittering off the water. Distant traffic on the Esplanade shimmered in the heat. A light breeze ruffled the water and caressed their skin.
‘Just take the tiller for a moment while I go and drop the hook. Keep it pointed that way. Yeah, like that.’ The engine chugged in neutral.
As the boat lost way, Tony walked briskly to the bow. He heaved the heavy anchor over the roller with a splash, just as the boat came to a halt. Soon the breeze took hold of the bow, pushing it gently astern and to port as he paid out the thick, rattling chain, then several metres of braided nylon rope, before making fast on the anchor post.
‘Good! Now give it a bit of reverse gear. Like I showed you. To set the anchor … Excellent!’
Assured that the anchor was holding, Tony returned to the cockpit.
‘Nobody can see us from the shore?’
‘No way. We’re a mile offshore. Even with the best camera lens, we’ll just be a pair of pink blobs.’
‘And that little boat?’
‘Is a long way off. He’ll be busy fishing. What do you reckon — are we going to do this?’
‘Hm …’ She sounded uncertain, but ready to be convinced.
‘Come on, I’ll go first.’ Pulling the faded red rugby shirt over his head.
‘We’ll go together.’ The blue dress fell to the floor.
‘Ow! Shit, that is cold …’ she exclaimed, climbing gingerly down the stern ladder and dipping a foot in the water. Well, if I had any modesty left, …
‘Haha! Just go for it, Tash,’ he called from the water. ‘It’s worse if you hesitate.’
Tasha went for it, disappeared and resurfaced, shrieking.
They bobbed and doggy-paddled around, happily gasping, snorting, giggling and shivering, teeth chattering.
Acclimatised at last, she struck out in a confident freestyle, heading away from the boat. ‘Catch me if you can!’
He attempted to race after her, then pulled up short, treading water. Finding that she was not being chased, much less caught, she turned around. ‘Everything alright?’
‘Yeah, just my shoulder giving me a bit of trouble.’
‘Tendinitis, had it a while. Must have wrenched it, climbing down the ladder.’
‘It’ll be fine … Come on, let’s get back on board.’
He reached for the boarding ladder, then stopped, grey-faced. ‘Damn, that hurt.’
‘I’ll get out first, give you a hand.’
Tasha climbed easily up the short ladder and stepped over the stern rail. ‘Here. Take my hand.’
He gripped the ladder with both hands and felt for the bottom rung with his right foot, his right knee pressed hard against his chest. The trick was to lever oneself upwards, rather than push uselessly out and away from the stern. It was an easy manoeuvre with two strong arms — but nigh impossible with one, he now realised with alarm.
He levered his torso into an upright position and tried to push his thigh past the horizontal. Just a little higher … He reached for Tasha’s waiting right hand with his left.
‘Ahhhhh!’ He groaned involuntarily as the weight came on his right shoulder. Fell back into the water gasping for air.
‘For God’s sake, Salty … Look, I’m going to get some clothes on. Just hold on to the ladder.’
‘Yeah … Be quick. Please … I’m getting cold.’
23 – Prey
Skinny dippers are not the top of the food chain
The cacophony was relentless. So much noise.
She was a creature of the open oceans. Her ears were accustomed to the steady pulse of the long rollers, exquisitely attuned to the thrashing of wounded prey.
Here in the shallows, strange new sensations assaulted her senses from every angle. Churning, throbbing, pounding, shrieking, creaking sounds. Odd, rank smells.
She had never meant to be here. Wounded from the encounter with the seal, she had strayed into the labyrinth. Ever farther, ever more lost.
Odd objects floated on the surface of this confusing, constrained little sea. Superficially like the corpses of whales or porpoises, but hard and inedible. Definitely not living, but sometimes moving at great speed with a vicious churning, slashing thing at the rear. Sometimes bobbing inert, making strange hollow sounds.
There were few seals here, and those few were wary. There were far too many dolphins; hateful, relentless persecutors of her kind.
She had not eaten well for many days. Not since the strange seal had stung her.
She had merely been curious, circling, unsure whether to take it. Then it turned and struck. An ungainly, slow-moving animal, but with a terrible weapon: a barbed sting like that of a stingray, only worse.
The barbed spear-shaft still sat deep in the base of her left pectoral fin, a nasty festering wound, trailing metres of tangled Dyneema line which caught and dragged agonisingly.
She heard a nearby splash, then another. Two immature seals? Both were slow and clumsy, the one more so than the other. It made moaning sounds, and seemed to be incapacitated. She began to circle.
Yet something was not right. The long, skinny seal pup reminded her somehow of that other seal, the one with the terrible sting.
Still, her hunger was stronger than her fear. She turned and powered towards her prey, eager for the kill. How she yearned for that intoxicating burst of blood, the rending of flesh, the crunch of bone …
Suddenly an unbearable buzzing filled her ears and a dark shape roared over the top of her, nicking her dorsal fin. Dismayed, she turned and fled into the depths.
24 – Man Overboard
The confidentiality of on-water matters is tested
Tasha dried herself hastily on a towel and tugged on her dress, leaving knickers and bra trampled in a sodden heap on the cockpit floor. Wet blotched the thin fabric dark blue. ‘Try again!’ She reached for his arm.
‘Ahh … ‘
Leaning precariously over the rail, she tried to hook her hand under his upper arm but could get no purchase on wet flesh. He flopped back into the water again, gasping and exhausted.
‘It’s no use. I can’t do it.’
‘Salty … Tony. Listen to me. You have to do this.’
‘I know … Arm just won’t work though.’
‘I can help you. I’m strong.’
‘You’ll never pull me on board. Can’t be done from that angle. Impossible.’
Tasha looked around, desperate.
The sailing school dinghies had followed them out, and despite Tony’s confident prediction to the contrary, were not far away, milling around a large yellow inflated buoy.
She waved her arms frantically above her head and yelled. At length she saw the young sailors in one dinghy gesticulating to the attendant safety boat, then pointing.
With a quick burst of power, the RIB surged towards them, slowing when in hailing distance. ‘Everything okay?’
‘No! My … friend. He can’t get out of the water! Please help …’
‘Bloody hell, I can’t believe this is happening …’ muttered Tony weakly. He clung to the boarding ladder with his left arm, his useless right by his side.
‘Oh … hello Tony, mate,’ called the coxswain of the RIB, pulling carefully alongside and cutting the motor. ‘I thought it was your boat … Having a bit of trouble?’
‘Hello Jim,’ replied Tony, whose pale, drawn face struggled to muster a blush despite his mortification. ‘Shoulder’s buggered. Can’t get out of the water.’
‘No dramas. We’ll soon have you out of there.’ Strong hands slipped under Tony’s arms and heaved him backwards over the side of the RIB.
’Lost your bathers too, mate … Got a towel, err, Miss?’
Blushing furiously enough for two, Tasha tossed down a bath towel.
‘Is everything alright, Mr O’Donnell?’ called a youthful voice. The gaggle of Optimist dinghies had approached, curious.
‘Yes, Leeza. Just helping this bloke who’s … fallen off his boat.’
‘Does he need CPR? We learned it in First Aid …’
‘No, no, he’ll be right. Go and practise tacks and gybes round the mark, please. Ten of each.’
‘Maybe he’s got hippy thermia,’ called Leeza’s crewmate, hopefully.
‘Thanks, Jorja. I’ll bear that in mind. Off you go!’
‘O-k-a-a-a-y, Mr O’Donnell …’
Back on board his yacht, wrapped in a warm towel, Tony faced his burly, tanned rescuers. ‘Thanks, guys … I owe you one, big time.’
‘Yeah, I reckon you do, mate. Big time,’ agreed Jim O’Donnell, heroically straight-faced. ‘You sure you can make it back in? We can’t leave the Nippers, but Brad can radio for another boat to …’
‘No, no. I’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.’ Glancing at Tasha, who sat quietly in the corner of the cockpit, wet hair straggled on her cheek, arms folded across her chest, looking at the floor. ‘We’ll just get our shit together and motor back in.’
‘How are you going to weigh anchor one-handed, mate? You’ll need your … this lady to take the tiller.’
‘Brad’ll come aboard and get you sorted out. Then we’ll leave you to … to yourselves.’
‘That went well, I thought,’ observed Tasha, her voice dangerously level, as they motored towards the marina.
‘Tasha, I am so, so sorry. I really am.’
‘So am I. Sorry we were the centrepiece of a full-scale marine rescue — attended by a whole class of 10-year-olds. At least there wasn’t a Search and Rescue helicopter. Otherwise we might have made the evening news rather than … rather than …’
‘Rather than just being the talk of the yacht club bar tonight?’
Tasha looked at Tony. Tony looked at Tasha. A smile played around the edges of her mouth. ‘Salty Sea Dog, you are a fucking fucking FUCKING idiot.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ he grinned cautiously.
‘What were you thinking? With an injured shoulder?’
‘I thought it would be okay and … I didn’t want to look like an old crock, I guess. Not very sexy.’
‘Sexy!’ She threw her arms around him suddenly. ‘I thought you were going to die, you silly, silly bastard …’
‘Ow,’ he winced, as she squeezed his aching shoulder.
‘Serves you bloody well right. But sorry.’
A wet, lingering kiss suggested all was not quite lost.
25 – A glass of wine – and Thou
Some things fall into place
No band practice tonight. ☹️ Tony has hurt his shoulder, silly sausage. Hugh and Nigel can’t make it either. Something about “a big day tomorrow”??
No worries. A quiet night in it is, then. What’s on TV?
No idea. Come round for a cheeky red anyway?🍷🍷
On my way 💃💃💃
Loz heard the crunch of tyres on gravel, the bang of a car door, then silence. A minute or two later, Anna appeared at the kitchen door.
‘Come on in, girlie …’ Loz slammed the oven shut with her elbow and placed the baking tray on a trivet on the workbench.
‘No Soph and Cris this evening? … Ooh, those smell divine!’ Anna’s brunette bob bent over the tray.
‘Try one. Parmesan and paprika breadsticks, had some leftover sourdough … Soph and Cris are out for the night, staying at a friend’s place in Lara. What’s this?’
Anna plonked down a bottle of red wine on the table. ‘Can’t be drinking your wine every time, darl.’
Loz inspected the bottle with interest. ‘Heathcote Shiraz, 2012 … Looks like a nice one. Special occasion?’
‘Nah. It’s been hanging around at the back of the cupboard for a while.’
Loz put some of the breadsticks in a basket and took two large wine glasses from the shelf. ‘Come out to the courtyard.’
‘You sure? It’s a bit chilly out there …’
‘Yeah, autumn seems to be arriving early. It was still hot yesterday … Tell you what: we’ll get the fire going. In the meantime, grab a blanket from the trunk in the hallway.’
Loz arranged kindling in the fire pit and struck a match. Oil-rich eucalyptus leaves crackled and the pine kindling was soon aflame. Loz fed in the first piece of redgum.
They pulled up the heavy jarrah bench and snuggled together under the coarse woollen blanket for warmth. For a while they stared into the flames as dusk settled over the garden, sipping the heavy red wine and crunching on breadsticks.
Anna broke the silence. ‘We’re both quiet this evening.’
‘Been doing a lot of thinking, hun,’ responded Loz.
‘Had a chat with a real estate agent this morning.’
‘She reckons I would get a clear two million for the farm.’
‘Developers are sniffing around, it seems …’
‘But you’re zoned rural. Four Ks outside the town boundary.’
‘They think it’s a good bet for rezoning and development. Could be ten years, but they would lease the land out and bide their time.’
‘You always said how much you hated that. How it’s ruining farming on the Bellarine.’
‘I know, I know … But I’m tired, hun.’
‘Hmm, I’ve thought that, sometimes.’
‘… tired of living in a big house by myself, with only young WWOOFers for company.’
‘But you love having the young people!’
‘It’s nice to have them here, but they have their own lives, and they’ll soon be off on other adventures. Then strangers come in. They have to be shown the ropes. And every once in a while, there’s a creep or a lazy bastard. It’s wearing. And in the meantime, I’m barely breaking even. It’s hard, physical labour and it ain’t getting any easier.’
Anna thought for a minute. ‘I can relate to that. It’s a bit the same with the café. It’s a hard slog, and since David died, it’s become a bit … joyless, I guess.’
‘Five years running a business on your own is a long time, hun.’
‘Not quite on my own. There’s Aaron. He’s a great manager and I couldn’t do it without him. But at the end of the day, he’s an employee.’
‘Both of us are really just marking time, aren’t we? Jogging hard, just to keep on the spot … Sometimes a girl needs to feel she’s getting somewhere, making progress.’
‘Aaron’s keen to move us forward. The café’s open for breakfast and lunch six days a week. He’d like to open for dinner at weekends …’
‘Well, it would be a challenge. I’m not sure it’s the sort of challenge I want, though.’
‘Here’s another idea: you and I could go into business together. A gastronomy business that grows its own produce, maybe?’
Sparks flew into the dark night. Beyond the fire’s aura, the Milky Way blazed in its cold glory.
Anna had taken the idea and was running with it, her enthusiasm fuelled by the opening of a second bottle of wine.
‘Okay, so we’ll appoint a head chef – a proper chef – and make Aaron full-time, managing front-of-house …’
‘The kitchen will need an upgrade and we’ll extend the dining room.’
‘You and I can concentrate on the market gardening …’
Loz ruminated. ‘What we need is money for all this. We’ve got assets. Just no cash in the bank. And I don’t want a bloody great loan.’
‘… so the question is, how can we best leverage our assets in the interests of optimum business synergy?’ offered Anna with her best poker face.
‘What did you just say?’
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ Anna smirked into her wine.
Loz shook her head. ‘Anna Morton, you’re a dag.’
They sat in silence and gazed at the fire, each following her own thoughts.
‘About the money … This might seem crazy, but …’ began Anna at length, with a curious tremor in her voice.
‘But I could move in with you and sell my house.’
‘As a live-in business partner?’ laughed Loz.
Anna looked at her friend. ‘As a live-in partner partner – if you’d like,’ she said quietly.
Loz sat bolt upright. ‘Ah … wow, shit … I … err … need to think about that.’
Anna sprang back as if from an electric jolt. ‘Sorry, Loz. I’m really … sorry. I don’t know what I … why I said that. Must have been the wine.’
She tried to laugh it off, her words tumbling over each other, brushing her hair behind her ear, blushing furiously, a flush visible even in the unsteady firelight.
Loz regarded her friend of twenty years, tenderly absorbing her agitation and distress. Swiftly and with mounting wonder reviewing words said, gestures, glances, silences …
‘You don’t need to be sorry, hun … Never be sorry.’ She reached out and caressed Anna’s burning cheek softly. ‘But this is all going a little fast for me.’
‘I understand … I know – I know … Me too. Really, I shouldn’t have …’
Loz stood up and stretched, then held out her hand. ‘So — why don’t we sleep on it?’ She pulled Anna to her feet. ‘Come on, darl. Grab that bottle of wine …’
‘I’ve never actually … With …’
‘Me nor. Can’t be that difficult, though … We’ll work it out, eh?’
26 – Two Messages
Affairs take an unexpected turn
Friday 21st February 2020, 5.33 p.m.
Phew! It’s a wrap! The conference was a great success. 1128 delegates from all over the world. What a week — stimulating, but exhausting!
Now for some bad news. Not too bad, but annoying. I’ve been asked to ‘take one for the team’ and stay behind to tie up some loose ends here in Sydney. I’ve already changed my return flight to Sunday afternoon.
I’m sooo sorry about that. And you with a sore shoulder and all, you poor darling! I hope you don’t feel abandoned 😟
But you’re silly, you know, taking that boat out by yourself. I always worry about you when you go off solo.
And now I’m nagging you. Sorry, I’ll stop it. You’re a grown man and can make your own decisions.
I’ll try to phone you in the morning. Hope you have a good night’s sleep.
Love and hugs
Kate closed her laptop with a snap, as if hoping to trap her conscience inside.
‘Are you coming back now?’ came Jean-Paul’s voice from the bedroom. ‘Time for a quickie, before we go down for dinner?’ She smiled, ruefully, and stood up from the sofa, letting her dressing-gown fall to the floor.
She felt pleasurably flushed and languorous. Light-headed, after finally taking the plunge with JP after a year of flirting around the office. If only this annoying, dry cough would go away.
Tony shrugged, winced, put down his phone and picked up his tea mug. His right shoulder ached abominably, but the strong anti-inflammatories were working. The codeine tablets were making him a little fuzzy. Hopefully a good night’s sleep tonight. No guitar for a while, he thought, sadly.
It was a shame to have two more days to stew over what to say to Kate, but he was also relieved. There was so much at stake in that necessary conversation and he wasn’t ready for it. Would he ever be ready? And how would Ella react, if her parents split up? Would she take Kate’s side? Why wouldn’t she?
He eyed the drinks cabinet. Maybe a glass of that Canadian Rye that Ella sent over for his birthday. Then an early night.
Tasha sighed, deleted the draft and started again.
I had a lovely time with you on Wednesday on your little boat. Mostly. Despite the ‘incident’. How’s your poor shoulder? You silly old sea dog 😉
Okay. Serious stuff coming up. (Again. Yes, I know.)
As you know, I work at the animal health lab. To be more precise, I’m a virologist specialising in zoonotic diseases.
This is strictly confidential. The coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan is turning out to be huge. We’re waiting to see whether the WHO will declare a pandemic. It’s on the cards.
With this in mind, I’m going to take a break from “extra-marital activities” for a while. I’m afraid that means us, too. Just until we know what we’re dealing with. I advise you to do the same. Keep socialising to a minimum, watch and wait. Above all, postpone any international travel plans.
When I see that you have read this, I’ll take my AM profile offline.
Take care of yourself, darling man!
She clicked ‘Send’ and closed the app.
27 – In the Rearview Mirror
A conversation about family
Hugh’s sleek Audi sped down the Princes Freeway towards Melbourne, with occasional attention to speed limits.
‘… my family is from Hue,’ continued Hugh. ‘A very traditional part of Vietnam, royalty’s a big deal there. Dad can trace his ancestry back to the Nguyen Dynasty.’
‘Cool,’ said Nigel, because he felt that he should say something.
‘Not cool to be a Royalist from Hue under the Communists. Not cool at all. They were treated as feudal reactionaries. Dad stood out because of his high-profile connections in the old government. Got sent to a re-education camp.’
‘What saved him from the worst of it was his medical reputation.’
‘So your Dad was a doctor?’
‘Is a doctor. Was a cardiothoracic surgeon, but lost the fine motor skills through heavy manual work in the camp. Here in Melbourne he was a family doctor for 32 years. Retired four years ago at 76.’
‘That’s one hell of a work ethic … Why haven’t you told me this before?’
‘I thought I had.’
‘Nope. Not a skerrick.’
‘Really? Sorry. I find family a bit … difficult.’
‘When we arrived in Australia, I was twelve. The oldest child and the only son. A lot of expectations riding on my skinny little shoulders.’
‘I never got “Well done,” or “I’m proud of you,” from Dad, or even “I love you, son.” Instead, it was “98 per cent? You must try harder,” and “Don’t rest on your laurels. Go for an MBA.” As extravagant praise, maybe: “Congratulations on your new job. When will you be made a partner?”’
‘Ah … Could we, err, slow down a little, do you think?’
Hugh unhunched his shoulders and eased his foot from the accelerator.
‘What about your Mum?’
‘The same. With bells on. She’s the one with the “royal bloodline” obsession.’
‘Yeah, you mentioned that.’
‘My duty is to procreate and bring forth a scion to the house of Nguyen.’
‘Ah. Doesn’t seem to be going too well, so far …’
‘Correct. And in Confucianism, obedience to your parents is one of a child’s highest duties.’
‘Naughty little Hugh.’
‘Very naughty little Hugh.’
Nigel squeezed his knee. ‘Listen, Babe, we’re going to get through this together, okay? Your parents might have issues with the whole love thing, but I’m telling you right now: I love you, I admire you, I worship the ground your pointy little Vietnamese feet walk on. Got it?’
‘Pointy? You take that back. I do not have pointy feet.’
‘Do so. Like a cute little pixie.’
28 – The Morning After
The light of day
‘What the hell are you doing?’
Kate’s face was grimy under the hard hat. ‘Just a bit of home reno, sweetie. New open-plan look for the toilet. Lovely view of the garden from there! And you know we need a swimming pool in the lounge …’ She gave the broken bricks a nonchalant kick with her steel-capped workboot.
Incredulous, he surveyed the wreckage of their home.
‘Kate, please put the jackhammer down …’
Tony came to with a start.
The jackhammer was his phone, vibrating on the sofa next to his face. His befuddled brain was unable to determine a course of action, but it knew that it needed the noise to stop. Randomly, he dabbed at the green blob. Sitting up and wiping the drool from his chin, he blearily registered ‘Ella’ and his daughter’s smiling photo on the screen.
‘Christ, Dad. You sound rough. Got a summer cold?’
‘Ahh, no … Codeine and whiskey last night … Not a good combination.’
‘So this is what happens when Mum’s away for a few days? Bingeing on hard liquor and pharmaceuticals?’
‘Ha,’ Tony laughed, then winced at the pain behind his eyes. ‘Not making a habit of it. Just a one-off. Forgot I’d taken the painkillers … A couple of glasses and it hit me like a train. Zonked out on the sofa.’ He yawned.
‘Dad, you’re a worry. Since when are you popping pills?’
‘Since Wednesday. Wrenched my shoulder working on the boat.’
‘Ouch … Do you want to call me back later?’
‘No, it’s okay. I’ll just get a glass of water.’
The cool water eased his raw throat and brought some clarity to his mind.
‘Dad, I’ve been thinking about you a lot since our last talk. Are you having some kind of mid-life crisis?’
‘Mum told you about the Harley and the tattoo, then?’
‘Dad, be serious.’
‘Sorry. I am going through a bit of an odd time. Selling up and … all that. Your kid goes away to uni, and moves to Canada, leaving you wondering what it was all for. You know how it goes.’
‘Thanks. I didn’t realise I was meant to stay home and tend to the pair of you in your dotage. Which appears to be arriving early, if you don’t mind my saying.’
‘Touché. I didn’t mean it like that, but …’
‘Well, I guess your Mum and I lived through you for so many years. Everything happens so damn fast. You’re young and in love, then you have a baby. You’re working hard to make a home. Your daughter’s in pre-school. You’re driving her to netball. Then before you know it, she’s bringing her first boyfriend home. You’re teaching her to drive. Next thing, she’s flown the nest … and you think: “Shit, Was that it, my life? Where did those twenty years go?” You realise that you haven’t thought about what life is, who you are, what you want. Not for decades. And now you’re stuck in a life you don’t have a manual for. Or the instructions are in Korean or those Ikea hieroglyphics …’
‘Dad, what in the world are you going on about? Have you talked to Mum about this?’
‘Your Mum and I don’t talk much these days, love. To be honest, I think we’ve forgotten how. I’ve forgotten how.’
‘Hmm … I just spoke to Mum in Sydney, as it happens. She was weird, too. Cagey. Is there something you’re both not telling me?’
‘Such as the two of you splitting up? Or some bad health news? I mean, like, really bad?’
‘No, no …’
‘But? I sense a “but” …’
‘No buts, honest.’
‘Bullshit. Look anyway, I have to go. Whatever’s going on, whatever you decide to do with your life, Dad, you know that I love you. You do know that, don’t you?’
‘Yes, darling. I love you too. Your Mum and I, we both do.’
‘I know. Bye, Dad. Look after yourself.’
‘You too, Ella. Bye.’
A hot shower, a strong black coffee and a brace of paracetamol helped with the hangover. Faint traces of the evening’s chemical-induced euphoria lingered through breakfast: a pleasant detachment from reality. The disappointment of Tasha’s message could be accepted philosophically. Probably for the best.
Might as well tidy up a bit. He filled the dishwasher, picked up cushions from the floor. Put the half-empty bottle of Canadian Rye back in the drinks cabinet. Reluctantly he took the big dreadnought Martin from its stand and laid it carefully in its case. He wouldn’t be playing that for a while: not until his shoulder healed, which the doc said would certainly be weeks and might be months.
Then his eye fell on the little baritone ukulele. Smaller, lighter and slimmer than the guitar. Freshly polished and strung, sitting pertly on its stand, waiting to be played. Maybe, just maybe …?
He eased himself gingerly into the old rocker by the back door, now bathed in late-morning sunlight. The body of the little instrument sat nicely under his forearm. The strings responded eagerly to the caress of his fingertips. He closed his eyes and played.
Part of his life fell back into place.
29 – Happy Birthday, Dr Nguyen
Spicy food and heated conversation
Brenda’s and Justin’s house was a pleasant 1930s Californian Bungalow in Middle Park. Opening the wrought-iron gate, Hugh was greeted by squeals of delight from two tiny pigtailed girls, who rushed to hug his knees while their mother waved cheerily from the front veranda.
Nigel was introduced to the littlies as ‘Uncle Nigel’ and after brief, dark-eyed evaluation was accepted as suitable uncle material. Their mother turned out to be Hugh’s younger sister, Amy, who gave Hugh a ferocious hug and smiled up warmly at Nigel, blinking into the light, giving him her delicate hand in a weightless handshake.
Into the house and into the fray. The gathering was more multi-ethnic than he had imagined: clearly Hugh’s siblings and cousins had married widely. He estimated that of the two dozen adults present, about two-thirds were of Vietnamese background and the rest distributed fairly evenly around the globe.
He took immediately to Brenda, the elder of Hugh’s sisters. She seemed a female version of Hugh, with the same energy of movement and passionate intensity of features, leavened by a generous dose of mischief. Her two sons, Alex and Lachlan, were good-looking teenage boys, tall with chiselled, rather Mediterranean-looking features, polite but reserved in the company of so many older relatives.
Hugh’s father, Dr Nguyen, was seated in a recliner armchair in the living room. He looked all of his 80 years, perhaps older, a small, gracile man with a deeply wrinkled face. Hugh greeted him with deference, then introduced Nigel. Dr Nguyen listened attentively and offered his hand. Prepared for a bird-like touch to his palm, Nigel was shocked by the nutcracker strength of the old man’s grip. Dr Nguyen looked up at him with a twinkle in his eye.
Hugh’s mother was a different proposition entirely. As he introduced Nigel, her already reserved expression became blank. After a perfunctory ‘Pleased to meet you,’ which sounded anything but, she turned to speak sharply in Vietnamese to a family member. Hugh exchanged glances with Nigel and shrugged apologetically.
Taking him on a quick tour of the house and family, Hugh briefed him on names, relationships and backgrounds. Nigel listened carefully at first; after the fifth or sixth name, he decided that his brain was full, and just nodded attentively. His overall impression was of a family of high achievers: doctors, lawyers, the occasional engineer. He felt more and more like the proverbial fish out of water.
At length, the whole family sat down to eat, somehow accommodated at an improvised dining table which stretched the length of the generous garden room at the rear of the house. Brenda, who Nigel learned was an eminent neurosurgeon, marshalled a small team of nieces and nephews with parade-ground precision, turning out dish after fragrant dish from the kitchen.
Spoons and chopsticks clicked busily in delicate porcelain bowls, and conversation hummed. Talk around the table was partly in Vietnamese, partly in English, with the former predominating around the head of the table and Dr Nguyen, and the latter in a knot around Nigel and Brenda’s husband Justin, a big, broad-faced Kiwi.
Hugh usually treated food as mere fuel, indifferent to its quality. So Nigel was surprised to find his partner knowledgeable about his homeland’s cuisine, explaining each dish in detail and with evident pride. Nigel had experienced generic Vietnamese restaurant food but was quite unprepared for the intense, spicy flavours and delicacy. Some dishes were eye-wateringly hot.
Brenda turned to Nigel across the table.
‘So, how did you two meet?’
‘Oh, you’re in insurance, too?’
‘No, I’m a plumber. Hugh had a blockage. In his toilet,’ explained Nigel with a deadpan expression, ignoring Hugh’s warning kick.
Further up the table, Mrs Nguyen sucked in her already pursed lips sharply, as if she might implode. Her icy expression plunged towards absolute zero.
Nigel reviewed his store of plumbing anecdotes and decided to steer the conversation to safer waters. ‘But what really brought us together was music. I play double bass.’
This struck a chord. Accomplished musicians emerged all around the table, including a young cellist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The practicalities of lugging a large, yet delicate, stringed instrument between gigs were discussed at length.
As afternoon progressed into evening, Hugh found himself in conversation with his mother, something he had done his best to avoid up to that point.
‘Why did you bring this boy here?’
‘Boy? He’s fifty-seven, Mum.’
‘Old man, then. Why did you bring this old man, your lover? An insult to your father.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mum. He’s my partner, he wanted to meet my family.’
‘Do you want to shame your father into an early grave?’
‘I’ve nothing to be ashamed about. Time for you to accept that.’
‘Nonsense. You have abandoned your responsibility to your family. After everything that your father and I have done for you.’
Dr Nguyen sat impassively, his aged, wrinkled face like a mask.
A gust of heated conversation wafted out into the darkened garden, where Nigel and Justin were gamely discussing the merits of the Triton Dual-Cab ute, and young Alex peered into his iPad, brows knitted.
‘Hang on in there, mate,’ grinned Justin, surreptitiously indicating Mrs Nguyen, visible through the window. ‘I think she’s warming to you.’
Nigel raised an eyebrow. ‘You think so?’
‘No. Just kidding.’
‘Sounds to me like they’re having a big family bust-up.’
‘Probably just swapping recipes. I wouldn’t worry about it.’
Alex snorted in teenage derision. ‘Dad! Your Vietnamese is crap, but you know they’re talking about Nigel. He knows they’re talking about him. Why lie about it?’
‘Alex …’ Justin reflected and shrugged. ‘Well, you’ve got a point, son.’
‘I’m really sorry about my grandparents,’ continued Alex. ‘They’re good people really … Just, life’s been pretty tough for them, you know? They had to struggle.’
An awkward silence. Nigel indicated Alex’s iPad. ‘You got Foxtel on there?’
‘Can we take a look at the Cats game? The third quarter will be starting.’
‘How’s the game going? Are the Suns thrashing the Cats yet?’ enquired an elderly but still firm voice behind Nigel’s shoulder.
Nigel turned round. Dr Nguyen gave him a sly wink and engrossed himself in the live action on Alex’s iPad.
As the goodbyes progressed, Hugh’s father took him aside.
‘Thanks for coming, son. It’s good to see you.’ Dr Nguyen paused, searching for the right words. ‘I haven’t said it often enough, but I’m proud of you. You’re a good man … And I like your Nigel. He makes you happy, I can see that. Be kind to one another.’
Heartfelt thanks to my lovely friend Joanna Ha, whose insider knowledge of Vietnamese culture and history was essential for the final episodes of Down on Corio Bay.
And sincere thanks to you, too, gentle reader, for following the adventures of the Pickin’ Chickens. I hope you were entertained. It’s been a wild ride, and I’ve appreciated your company along the way.
Text and images copyright © 2021 Steve Williams unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.