I had set off fully expecting a dull, overcast day, but the forecast had said nothing about rain. Around mid-morning it began as a fine drizzle, so fine indeed that at first I didn’t notice it; but within ten minutes or so it had increased to the point where it became obvious that I was going to get soaked.
Just a little way downstream I could see something blue on the Victorian bank, on a wide stretch of coarse, pebbly sand. As we drifted towards it I realised it was a tarpaulin raised to form a shelter, and a small spiral of smoke suggested a campfire.
I had been on the river a couple hours by then so a bit of a spell seemed like a good idea. I rowed steadily with the stream until I was not far from the camp, then I beached her and quickly rigged the tent over her to keep the rain out. As I crunched towards the shelter, I saw a head lean forward and a hand raised in welcome. ‘Hello,’ I shouted, and waved in reply.
He had draped the bottom of the tarpaulin over a big fallen red gum, and hung a line horizontally between two trees. The tarpaulin went over the line and was tied to big chunks of log further down the beach. On the downstream side, the weather side, he had built a short wall of rocks and stakes. Looked pretty cosy. ‘Come in,’ he said. I nodded, and moved forward into the shelter.
‘Where yuh goin’ he asked. ‘Want a cuppa?’
I grunted in what I hoped was a friendly way.
He lifted the lid of a very black percolator and topped it up with some water from a billy and moved it to the centre of the fire. He watched for a few moments until it started to perk, and smiled at me.
‘Not quite espresso, but she’ll do.’
I nodded, wondering what it would taste like. Meanwhile he had reached for a mug, one of those old-fashioned enamel ones that burn your lip if you’re too hasty. ‘I got some of that long-life milk. Want that?’
Not my favourite. ‘I’ll take it black, please.’
He nodded. He gave it a minute or two, then filled the mug to the brim with truly black coffee, so thick that it seemed more like treacle. He handed it to me. ‘So where you goin’?’
The coffee was too hot to sip yet, so I put it beside me on the pebbles. ‘Downstream.’
‘I can see that. Headin’ anywhere special?’
‘Not really. Just heading downstream for a while, see how far I can get.’
He grunted. Gazing out over the river, he said, ‘Don’t often see sheilas out on the river alone.’
I said nothing, and tested the coffee. It was still very hot. I took a couple of sips. ‘How about you? Where are you heading?’
‘I live here.’ He had a smile on his face as though he was deliberately giving only a hint of the real story. But he wasn’t ready to give me more just yet.
‘Wassyer name?’ he asked suddenly.
He smiled and leaned towards me, his hand held out. I leaned closer and took it. It was very hard and horny, just as I had expected. Not an ounce of fat on it, like his face. Weathered. Tough. ‘Harry,’ he said. He looked about eighty years old.
‘Harry,’ I acknowledged, and let go of his hand. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘Oh, a while. A long while.’
‘Where do you come from?’
‘Sinney, ’riginally. Been all over, though. ‘Bout fifty year since I was last in the city.’
The coffee was good, actually, once you got used to the bitterness. He was right, it was nothing like espresso. ‘So what do you do?’ I asked, half expecting a rebuff.
He thought about it for a while. Then: ‘My stuff’s pretty borin’. Tell me what you’re up to.’
‘Rowing down the Murray,’ I told him. ‘Started at Khancoban,
and I’m heading for the sea.’
He stared at me. I had seen this expression many times, a disbelief, a surprise, a need for more information.
‘Gerraway,’ he said.
I just nodded.
‘You mean, by yerself? Rowin’ all the way?’
‘Not entirely, no. I’ve got a mast and a sail, if the wind ever comes right.’
‘Gerraway,’ he said again, and tossed the dregs of his coffee into the fire.
He was silent then, gazing into the fire. I snuggled into my seat, my hands wrapped around the mug, now comfortably warm.
‘How far is it, then?’
‘Oh, a bit over two thousand kilometers, they reckon. Of course, I didn’t start right at the beginning, so it’s a bit less than that.’
‘Strewth,’ he muttered, looking back to the fire.
I left it for a time. He leaned forward and tossed a few small logs into the fire sending a sudden display of sparks into the sky. ‘Your turn,’ I said.
‘Your turn to tell me what you’re doing here.’
‘Oh yeah,’ he said as though he had forgotten my question. ‘Well, I bin here about two months. They’ll move me on soon enough, I expect. They don’t like hobos.’
‘Is that what you are? A hobo?’
‘I suppose so. Dunno what else you’d call me. On the wallaby, perhaps, but that’s a bit dated, innit?’
‘Haven’t you got anywhere else to live?’
‘Not now, no. Sold the house when the missus died. Couldn’t stand it by meself.’ He stirred himself, and looked out at the river. ‘Rain’s stopped,’ he said.
The red gums were still dripping, but the sky was clearing from the west and everything was looking brighter. Might not last, I said to myself, but remembered that rain hadn’t been forecast either. Perhaps it would clear away, after all.
‘How about you? D’you just camp on a beach every night?’
‘Yes. I’ve got a tent and a mattress in the boat. And a sleeping bag, of course.’
‘But why? That’s what I want to know. Why the devil d’you want to take on such a massive journey? Young woman like you, ain’t you
got no better things to do?’
I had told this story a time or two before, so I kept it simple. ‘Made redundant, got a year’s salary, couldn’t find another job and didn’t want to waste my time looking. Thought I might just have a little adventure instead. So here I am.’
He looked at me in a funny way, cocking an eyebrow and looking at me sideways. ‘How long’s it going to take, then?’
‘Don’t know, and at the moment I don‘t care. If I stop enjoying it I’ll go home.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said. Then: ‘Fancy stayin’ here for the night? I got a beaut cod this morning, so I can give you a slap-up dinner.’ He sounded pretty keen. Was he lonely?
‘Bit early in the day to make camp,’ I told him. He looked crestfallen, and turned his head to the river.
‘Well, stay for lunch, then,’ he said eventually.
I looked at my watch. It was five to eleven. I really wouldn’t mind an extended break. ‘Cook me a bit of that cod, then, and I might hang around for it.’
He laughed. ‘Drive a hard bargain,’ he said. ‘Come on, I’ll show you.’ He left his chair and beckoned me to follow, leading me further up the beach.
I noticed he limped quite badly, his body sort of rolling along. Even so, he walked faster than I did.
The cod was wrapped in leaves and grass and placed safely inside a polythene bag, buried under a mound of pebbles. ‘Keeps’im cool, see?’
‘He’s big, isn’t he?’ I said.
‘Nothing like as big as they used to be when I was kid. But I reckon they’re sweeter when they’re this sort of size. Any bigger and they start to taste a bit woolly.’
‘Never eaten cod before. Oily fish, aren’t they?’
‘Oily and delicious.’
He drew a knife from a scabbard at his waist, tested its sharpness and drew it quickly in a semicircle just behind the gills, then across the tail. ‘Hungry?’ he asked.
He slid the blade along the lateral line, then slipped it deeply into the meat along the back of the fish and cut a neat fillet which must have weighed a kilo or more. Neatly done, I thought, perhaps the
neatest filleting I’d ever seen. He wrapped the fish again, and buried it once more.
‘Trouble with fish like this,’ he said as we walked together back to his shelter, ‘is that they’re too big for one person to eat.’
‘So it’s cod for breakfast, lunch and dinner until it’s gone?’
‘Yeah,’ he replied. ‘A bit like that.’ He fetched a rusty tin full of salt from a box at the back of his shelter, and rubbed it into the fillet. He cut the fillet in half, then fetched a strange wire contraption and folded it around the cod, sticking it into the sand so that it hung over the fire, not very close but right in the plume of smoke. He saw me watching; ‘Flavour,’ he said. ‘Oily fish, they taste much better with a bit of smoke around them.’
I didn’t mind eating lunch early, and said as much.
‘Won’t be ready for a while. Half an hour in the smoke, then I’ll start cooking. Sit down an’ we’ll have a yarn.’
I didn’t mind that either. ‘You’ve told me nothing about yourself, really, Harry. What did you do to your leg?’
He looked down at it as though he didn’t know what I was talking about. ‘That was ages ago. Came off a horse, and the bugger stepped on me leg. That was the end of jackarooing for me.’
‘How old were you?’
‘Twenty five, twenty six. Don’t remember exactly.’
‘Where was that?’
‘Over in the Territory. Ran away from Sinney when I left school. Had to be a jackeroo, didn’t I? Ten years I done it. Best years of my life.’
He leaned over and put a few small branches on the fire, making it smoke more.
‘Oh, I sort of bummed around for a while till I got sick of it, being broke and no job and that. So then I went back to school.’
‘What did you study?’
‘Accounting.’ He smiled. ‘I liked that. Not as good as jackarooing, but I couldn’t do that no more. Took me a few years to get qualified, then a few more working for this geezer in town while I did a bit more studying.’
I was surprised. I suppose I shouldn’t have been, but he didn’t look or sound like an accountant. I guessed it all went wrong for him, leaving him broke again.
He paused, as though deciding how much to tell me. ‘Then I set meself up down ‘ere, an’ I never looked back.’
I reached for my mug, and drank some more of the bitter coffee, cold now. ‘Long way from accountancy to this,’ I suggested.
He laughed loudly, a deep, throaty sound that echoed across the valley. ‘Not so far as you’d think,’ he said, shaking his head and continuing to chuckle. ‘Looks can be deceiving.’
I couldn’t think what he meant. ‘How do you mean?’
He leaned forward. ‘This is just between you an’ me, right?’
‘I made a heap,’ he said. ‘Money for old rope, it can be, if you’ve got a head for figures. I’m not saying everything I did was real dinki-di, but most of it was on the level, and the bits that were a bit dodgy weren’t as bad as all that. Got married, Jane was an accountant too, a genius when it came to tax, and in no time at all we was rollin’ in it. Three kids, private schools, skiing holidays overseas, the whole kit an’ caboodle.’
Looking at him here on the river-bank it was only too clear he was having me on. Well, he wasn’t hurting anyone with his delusions.
‘Hows the cod doing?’ I asked.
He took the wire gadget and sniffed it, poked it and then returned it to its position in the smoke. ‘Give it a while longer,’ he decided.
The temperature was dropping a bit and the gentle breeze had stiffened a little. I zipped up my jacket and held out my hands to the fire.
‘You don’t believe me, do you?’
I laughed, embarrassed. ‘Does it matter?’
‘Nah, I don’t suppose it does. Ships that pass in the night, an’ that.’ He leant forward and untied then re-tied his boots, a sort of distracting movement, a pause for thought. ‘On the other hand, it’s nice to be believed, ’specially when you’ve invited someone for lunch.’
More embarrassment. ‘Well, carry on, then. Tell me more. Convince me.’
It was his turn to be a bit shame-faced. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘That was a bit rude of me.’
I waved that away. Perhaps he was telling the truth, or something close to it. ‘Go on, then. What happened then?’
‘Happened? Well nothing, really. We just carried on like that,
the kids grew up and left home, the firm got bigger and bigger. Still going, actually. We retired when Jane passed sixty-five, an’ we just put a manager in to carry on the business. Still paying me ’andsomely. I just drop in a couple of times a year, keep them on their toes, like.’ He paused and smiled to himself. Then the light went out of his eyes.
‘Then Jane died, and I just sort of dropped out. Went for a long walk and just carried on walking. This is what I like to do now, sitting here by the river, fishing a bit, reading some, talking to people who come by. Pretty much a perfect life.’
He did sound convincing. The only thing was, why would he swap riches and comfort for a tarpaulin by a river?
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘let’s start cooking.’ He re-positioned the cod so that it was just above the glowing coals of the fire, and before long there was a sizzling as the oil from the fish dripped onto the coals. The smell was delicious, and after five minutes he turned the wire frame around and cooked the other side. The skin began to crisp up and turn golden, and my mouth started to water.
Harry rose and went to the box at the back of the shelter and took from it a bottle of wine, holding it up to show me. ‘Like a drop of wine with it?’ he asked. ‘White? Red?’
I nodded. ‘White’ll do me.’
He took two glasses from the trunk, and washed them out with the cooling water in the billy. He handed me a plate, a real china one, and a knife and fork. He had half a French roll, too, and he broke off a chunk and handed it to me. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘hold your plate out to warm it over the fire. Keep the fish warm.’ Then he poured a generous glass of wine and handed it to me before sitting once more. He opened the wire frame and served the cod, the juices spilling from it as he did so. ‘Want some ketchup with it? Some vinegar?’
‘This smells too good for that. I’ll eat it as it is.’
‘You might need a bit of salt,’ he suggested, and handed me the rusty tin. I tasted it first, then followed his lead, sprinkling some salt on the cod. It melted in my mouth, quite the most delicious fish I had ever tasted. I told him so.
‘It’s the smoke and the wood fire that does it,’ he said.
The wine, too, was fantastic, and I took a look at the label... I had heard of it, and the price of it too. I raised my eyebrows.
‘Someone told me once that life was too short to drink cheap wine,’ he said with a wicked smile.
I guess it was the setting, the unexpectedness of the whole affair. I couldn’t remember ever having enjoyed a lunch so much. I sopped up the last of the juices with the bread, and knocked back the rest of the wine before settling back and sighing.
Harry held out the wine bottle, offering a refill. I didn’t argue, though I knew a second glass would make rowing a bit erratic later. You don’t get spoiled like this often in life. And I was fairly sure I couldn’t be done for rowing under the influence.
‘Harry, that was fantastic.’ He beamed.
‘And I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical at first, but now I’m not so sure. I guess you’re lucky you did your leg in, eh?’
He looked at me, surprised, and sat up straight. ‘Lucky?’ he said. ‘Lucky? If I hadn’t done my leg in I’d still be doing what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, being a jackaroo in the Territory.’