This morning, I was six minutes late to launch the boat and pick up the black bream nets. The phone rang on the last stretch to the boat ramp, and I ignored it because I knew it was Old Salt hurrying me up. I backed the boat trailer down the ramp and watched in the lights of the rear view as he messed around with the ropes and winch. Then, after dumping the boat into the black pre-dawn water, I drove up into the car park.
I was just zipping up my wet weather gear when police cars surrounded me.
At 6 in the morning and boat ramping, I did a stumbling mental inventory: Trailer lights? Check. Current car and driver’s licenses? Check. Have I done anything BAD lately? Um … no. Check.
They leapt out of their cars. “We’ve got a situation,” said one policeman. “There’s a bloke out there.” He pointed to the sea grass banks where a solitary figure stood like a stump in the middle of the harbor, his shouting and screaming spreading across the water. “He’s going off. Can you see him?”
“We need you to take us out there and get him in.”
Suddenly, my projection of a morning of pulling in nets, watching the sun rise and whingeing about a dearth of black bream began to look pretty ordinary.
“Does he actually want to come in?”
They looked at me.
“OK. Look. You’ll have to ask Old Salt. He’s the skipper. He’s the man to decide whether or not you drag a crazy guy into his boat.”
The policemen walked out to the boat to talk to Old Salt.
They came back with Old Salt in tow.
“This man may not want to come in. He could have a gun. There may be a bit of a struggle. You might get wet.”
Old Salt and I both looked at the coppers.
“We try very, very hard not to get wet,” said Old Salt.
“Not getting wet is the most important part of our whole operation,” I said.
Everyone began to look uncertain. Then Old Salt asked the question that changed the course of the morning. “What’s his name?”
“Peter Jackson? Aunty Jack?” I said.
“Aunty Jack? Do you know this man? How do you know him?” The coppers turned their alpha-male-on-the-job glare on me.
“I went to school with him. He’s nice.”
I walked about in the car park, thinking, while the cops chatted with my boss. Aunty Jack has always been a gentle soul, even when off his meds. I walked back up the jetty to the boat and the tight cluster of uniforms. “How about I go out and pick him up? Just me and Old Salt?”
“Yeah, we’ll go out there and ask him if he wants a ride back. If he says no or we have trouble, we’ll come back and get you.”
The police were all wired up to requisition the boat, which would have been funny because that two-stroke is a passive-aggressive fucker and that’s before Old Salt gets hold of the tiller. Plus, a police uniform in a commercial fishing boat gives it a whole new look. Plus, I knew their shift finished in an hour, and their boots were still dry. I could see all this stuff ticking over in their minds, too, and then they looked to me and gave me the nod.
“He’s not in any trouble. We just want to get him to hospital,” said one of the policeman. Constable Bird. “Let him know that.”
Old Salt fired up the two-stroke. and we roared out to the bank. As we got closer, he had to lift the motor so we could get onto the shallow grounds of the harbor. The man who stood waist-high in the water was a stranger. Far out, I thought. We are picking up someone I don’t recognize after all. I don’t know what I am getting into here. Ooo-wee.
Finally, I realized it was him.
“Aunty Jack! Aunty Jack!” I called. “Do you want a ride?”
His face was a skull with huge black holes for eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for a fortnight. His long hair dangled in wet brown strands. I reckoned he’d been in the water for a while and was probably hypothermic.
When he recognized me, he seemed to rise higher out of the water, and his eyes got even darker.
I didn’t know whether my name was a welcome or a curse.
“Just get in.”
“I saw you on the school bus.”
“They shot my mother.”
“Jump in the boat, Aunty Jack. C’mon.”
He climbed into the boat in a quick move, straight over the gunwale. Son of a fisherman, he sat on the thwart, and I wrapped a smelly shade cloth around his shoulders.
“Can you take me over to Emu Point?”
“We’re going in … just over there,” I pointed at the boat ramp.
“The cops’ll shoot me, Sarah. Take me to Emu Point. They’ve been taking potshots at me all night.”
“We’ll look after you, mate,” Old Salt said. “Just hang tight. If they make any trouble, we’ll take you out and make you pick up our nets.”
“They’ll kill me.”
“They killed me Mum.”
“Your Mum’s all right, mate. I heard. She’s OK.”
The conversation went on like this until we pulled into the jetty. The police had drawn their cars behind my ute, so their lights were just showing over the bonnet. Being used to Fisheries ambushes, my antenna was truly buzzing when the paddy wagon wasped into the car park. I didn’t know what Aunty Jack was going to do when we saw the lights, but when I looked at him, he sat huddled into the shade cloth and seemed cold and blue and tired.
“We’ll stay here and keep an eye out for you, mate,” said Old Salt. “We’ll make sure you are all right.”
“I’m really scared,” he said.
Aunty Jack climbed onto the jetty. He was missing a shoe, and his clothes were torn up and wet. He shambled along to where the policeman Bird stood waiting on the red gravel. He put his hand on Aunty Jack’s shoulder, quite gently, and the other constable sauntered, alert. At the paddy wagon, officers patted him down. Then they stuffed Aunty Jack into the white plastic capsule, slammed the hatch shut and drove him away as the sun rose over the hills.
Original posted 08.20.2011 on thawinedarksea.blogspot.com.