A serialised novel

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

1 The Pickin’ Chickens

An Aussie bluegrass band is born.

2 Flotsam

Monty makes a discovery.

3 Al Fresco

Anna and Hugh make sweet music.

4 Rock My Boat

Tony outlines a plan for the ‘Love Boat’.

5 A Man of Leisure

Kate gives a candid assessment of her man.

Don’t Lose Your Footing

A bass player has a near-death experience.

That Old Roo-in-the-Dam Trick

The bushman act doesn’t fool anyone.

8 Trouble on the Way

Band practice is rudely interrupted.

9 It could have been worse

Cristóbal saves the day.

10 Rhymes with ‘Verde’

A lot of tomatoes get the chop.

11 Riverside

Tony and Tasha test the water.

12 Paddle Faster

Hugh and Nigel have an inflatable adventure.

13 Rules of Engagement

Agreement is reached, with some trepidation.

14 Saturday morning

Salsa verde is sold and waltzes are twirled.

15 A Place by the Bay

We learn the story of Loz’s family home …

16 After the Gig

Sausages are grilled and important conversations are put off.

17 Uncharted Waters

Exploratory manoeuvres occur below decks.

1 – THE PICKIN’ CHICKENS

A band is born

‘Pickin’ Chickens’ © Steve Williams 2020

Taking time out from playing, Tony (guitar), Anna (fiddle), Nigel (double bass), and Hugh (banjo) gathered around Loz’s (vocals and mandolin) dented and scarred baltic pine kitchen table. 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 Porgy, Loz’s fat, elderly tortoiseshell cat. Out on the bay, an unseen jetski pounded and revved.

Loz returned doggedly to the vexed question: ‘So, what are we going to call this here band, then?’

‘I dunno,’ 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.

‘I was!’

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. ‘Yeah, Melbourne band … Bugger it!’

‘“Bugger it”? Not exactly kid-friendly, and maybe more punk than bluegrass?’ offered Nigel.

Loz smiled weakly at her ex-husband. ‘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. ‘Yeah, no, we’re good, looks like.’

Nigel pumped the air: ‘Yessss! Result!’

‘The Pickin’ Chickens it is then. Excellent!’

BACK TO T.O.C.

2 – FLOTSAM

A walk on the beach and an odd discovery

‘Intertidal’ © Steve Williams 2021

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.

BACK TO T.O.C.

3 – 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. 

‘Ow! Bastard.’

‘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? 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.

‘The Dell’ © Steve Williams 2021

BACK TO T.O.C.

4 – ROCK MY BOAT

A very private chat

SALTY.C.DOG    Thursday
Hello. Couldn’t help noticing your photo. It’s … intriguing.

JESSICA2941     Thursday
Intriguing? Why do you say that?

SALTY.C.DOG    Thursday
Looks a little fierce. That mask. A lot sexy. That tight black dress. I could come over and help you unmake that bed …

JESSICA2941     Thursday
You’re funny, Salty. I’m not that fierce.

SALTY.C.DOG    Thursday
You’re just a li’l pussycat, then? Riiiight …

JESSICA2941     Thursday
Mm but watch out for the claws. And the sharp little teeth 🙂

SALTY.C.DOG    Thursday
Noted. Sweet dreams, Pussycat.

JESSICA2941     Thursday
Good night, Salty.

SALTY.C.DOG    Friday
Mornin’, Pussycat. Dreamed of you. Feeling a little bit … aroused.

JESSICA2941     Friday
That’s perfectly natural. Men wake up aroused. soz, didn’t dream of you 😘

SALTY.C.DOG    Friday
Darn. I’ll have to try harder.

JESSICA2941     Friday
lol please do.

SALTY.C.DOG    Saturday
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.

JESSICA2941     Sunday
Oh yes? I’m interested.

SALTY.C.DOG    Sunday
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 …

JESSICA2941     Monday
soz Salty. Had to go out. Boat, that sounds like fun …

SALTY.C.DOG    Monday
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.

JESSICA2941                 Monday
Okay, I’m a little interested. Maybe. Tell me more.

SALTY.C.DOG    Monday
We strip off, still a bit bashful, and slip into the cool water. Can you feel the thrill as it reaches your … private regions?

JESSICA2941 Monday
lol, maybe. So we swim around for a bit, then what? I’m worried about *your* ‘private regions’ and the cold water 😜

SALTY.C.DOG    Monday
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.

JESSICA2941     Monday
I’m starting to get turned on. Carry on.

SALTY.C.DOG    Monday
Tomorrow, Jessica. A salty ol’ dog needs his sleep.

JESSICA2941     Monday
Mr Dog, don’t you dare!

SALTY.C.DOG    Monday
Night. Jess 🙂

SALTY.C.DOG    Tuesday
Good morning, Jess. Sweet dreams?

JESSICA2941     Tuesday
Morning, Salty. My real name’s Tasha.

SALTY.C.DOG    Tuesday
Pleased to meet you, Tasha. I’m Tony. But I’m getting to like Salty. Want to carry on with our little scenario?

JESSICA2941 Tuesday
Sure. So we’re on your boat. Naked. What next?

SALTY.C.DOG    Tuesday
You sit in the cockpit and dry your hair. I crouch down between your knees and …

JESSICA2941 Tuesday
Cockpit?

SALTY.C.DOG Tuesday
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 …

JESSICA2941 Tuesday
What if my husband comes by on his jetski?

SALTY.C.DOG Tuesday
Wow, Tasha, you know how to spoil the mood 😦

JESSICA2941     Tuesday
😜

‘Love Boat’ © Steve Williams 2021

BACK TO T.O.C.

5 – A MAN OF LEISURE

A café dialogue, in which a husband is underestimated

Photo by dapiki moto on Unsplash

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.’

‘Meaning?’

‘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 …’

‘Nigel.’

‘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 …’

‘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.

BACK TO T.O.C.

6 – UNSTABLE CLIFFS

Life’s a beach, sometimes it throws nasty surprises ashore

Photo by Steve Williams 2021

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.’

‘You alright?’

‘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.

BACK TO T.O.C.

7 – THAT OLD ROO-IN-THE-DAM TRICK

Nigel fails to convince

‘Roo in Dam’ © Steve Williams 2021

‘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.

‘Drowned.’

‘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.’

‘Yes, ma’am!’

BACK TO T.O.C.

8 – TROUBLE ON THE WAY

A song proves prophetic

‘Lightning over Corio Bay’ © Steve Williams 2021

‘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.

‘Lovely evening.’

‘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!’

‘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!’

BACK TO T.O.C.

9 – 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.’

‘Oh shit.’

‘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!’

‘Salsa Verde’ © Steve Williams 2021

BACK TO T.O.C.

10 – 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!’

Photo by Tiffany Anthony on Unsplash

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.’

BACK TO T.O.C.

11 – RIVERSIDE

Testing the water

‘Upstream’ © Steve Williams 2021

TASHA

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.

TONY

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.

BACK TO T.O.C.

12 – PADDLE FASTER

I can still hear banjos

‘Paddling’ © Steve Williams 2021

‘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.’

‘Ah. Right.’

‘Secondly, it’s reckless, because that there is a swimming beach.’

‘So?’

‘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.’

‘No. Look.’

A long, dark shadow passed beneath the canoe. Swift, serene, as long as their boat.

BACK TO T.O.C.

13 – RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Private chats and secret misgivings

‘Love Boat: Wind in Her Sails’ © Steve Williams 2021

JESSICA2941 11.34 a.m.
Hello Salty
It was lovely to meet you yesterday. I find you rather cute, Mr Dog.

SALTY.C.DOG 11.38 a.m.
Hi Tasha,
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.
I’m ready.

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?

BACK TO T.O.C.

14 – SATURDAY MORNING

At the market, where salsa is green and ducks are slightly concerned

‘At the petting zoo’ © Steve Williams 2021

‘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.’

‘Oh, yes?’

‘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 …’

BACK TO T.O.C.

15 A Place by the Bay

Loz Marić’s backstory

‘House by the Bay’ © Steve Williams 2021

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.

BACK TO T.O.C.

16 After the Gig

Conversations after dark

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

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 …’
‘Excellent!’
‘Woohoo!’
‘… tips for the band, eighty-six dollars fifty.’
‘Ah.’
‘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.’
‘Work?’
‘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.’
‘Meaning what?’
‘Nigel, sweetheart, can you please stop waving that sausage around?’
‘Sorry.’
‘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.

BACK TO T.O.C.

17 Uncharted Waters

A short, sweet voyage into the unknown

‘Aquamarine’ © Steve Williams 2021

‘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.

BACK TO T.O.C.

TO BE COMPLETED (ESTIMATED COMPLETION DATE: END JUNE 2021)

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