Catching crabs

In a concrete car park, amid signs banning hawkers and humbug, I was asked out on my first Territory date. I was sweaty, wearing an inappropriately synthetic dress, and standing in front of Video Ezy at the Nightcliff Shopping Centre.

Back in the day, there used to be a Drive-In there on Dick Ward Drive, but by the time I arrived, that had long gone. It was a rental DVD or nada. I guess I’ll tell my grandkids about it one day, but Video Ezy Nightcliff was the place to be back in the olden, golden days of the naughties, especially on a Friday night or after school sport on a Saturday. In those days, hiring out DVDs in Darwin must have been almost as lucrative as the bottle shop trade. Action films ruled and the overnight new release market was booming; the Maltesers were overpriced and overflowing. You could get 7 weeklies for $7, and probably still rent on VHS if you asked nicely enough.

Sadly for Video Ezy, those glory days were short lived. These days, the shop barely exists, relegated to some lower rent real estate in the Centre where the quilting and patchwork shop used to be.

But back then, Video Ezy had pole position and I was its newest devotee. I hunched over their table of TV boxed sets, trying to do the kind of budgetary analysis that Joe Hockey dreams of: if I owe nearly $50 in overdue fines, is it better for me to buy Season 4 of Sex and the City outright or should I still just rent it from the weekly shelf?

A tall bloke with a shaved head and a slightly crooked nose broke my reverie with a one liner. We shook hands and made some awkward small talk. I made a joke about having a substance abuse issue (namely my Sex and the City addiction) and he mentioned something about having one, too, although unfortunately I would later find out that his wasn’t to 25-minute episodes about fashionable, libido-driven New Yorkers.

After a little more chat and a car park proposition, Daz became my first Territory boyfriend. Permanently clad in a fishing shirt, a pair of boardies and a broad brimmed hat, he’d driven up the Tanami after a couple of years milking cows in a Margaret River dairy and was couch surfing with mates. Daz loved making sushi, had ridden his bike through France and worked his way across Canada. He didn’t stay in jobs too long. While I knew him, he sold power tools, worked at a croc farm and drove trucks. At one stage, he bought a tinny and used his bicycle to tow it to Nightcliff Jetty. He didn’t believe in sunscreen, was partial to a cold beer or ten and stitched up his own drunken injuries with dental tape and without painkillers. Daz was Territory Tough, despite hailing originally from Western Sydney.

Our first date was at a now defunct Indian restaurant. For our second date, Daz invited me to come mud crabbing at Buffalo Creek. I thought that sounded romantic in a frontier kind of way, which shows how little I knew at the time about either romance or mud crabbing.

Daz picked me up mid afternoon that Saturday in his ageing Camry. We drove up Lee Point Road, past the caravan park, towards Buff Creek. Despite reports of pollution, proximity to the sewerage treatment plant and a couple of resident crocodiles, the boat ramp provides access to fishing in Shoal Bay and the creek is a favourite amongst hardened Darwin land-based fishos.

Daz locked the Camry and grabbed a small bag of gear, a couple of fishing rods and half a dozen crab pots. I followed him into the mangroves, a muddy grave yard of sharp black roots and greying trees, their once green leaves covered with a film of dust and mangrove muck.

Wearing my best thongs was a mistake. The patent black Birkenstocks I’d bought in Melbourne were swallowed in gulps of mud almost immediately. I abandoned them and the mangrove roots pierced the bottoms of my feet and in between my toes. Sand flies went to work on my legs, running down my calves like a Disney character eating a cob of corn. I madly swatted away the larger mosquitoes, wiped away the sweat and tried not to grimace.

Finally, we got to Daz’s favourite crabbing spot. He opened up the first pot and dug around in his bag for a blunt filleting knife. Then he unwrapped a smelly piece of kangaroo tail from a freezer bag.

“You want to bait it?”

I picked up the tail tentatively and tried to slice through the sinews. After five minutes of effort, all I came away with was a ragged, bloody string of meat.

Daz shook his head at my filleting efforts and grabbed the knife. He sliced off a large chunk, replete with fur, and then hurled the trap into the murky water. It bubbled and sank. Daz wiped his fingers on his shorts and repeated the exercise five more times down the creek bed, tying the traps off on scrawny branches. Every so often we interrupted a furtive fisho, dropping lines for barramundi. They glared, annoyed to have their secret spots interrupted by dirty crabbers. As we walked along the water’s edge, I noticed disconcerting piles of white foam. They smelled like regurgitated fish guts if you got too close.

“Now we wait,” said Daz. We sat down on a rotting piece of tree root. I picked at the streaks of mud on my calves and tried not to scratch my sand fly bites. Minutes dragged into hours, as we checked the pots and Daz threw in a line. I stared into the water, pondered the foam and kept an anxious eye out for crocs. I wished for a book, a fold out chair, some bug spray, or better yet, my couch at home. It was the worst date I’d ever been on, and I had once been out for dinner with a man who kept his bike helmet on the whole time.

Still, we did eventually come home, and with a bucket of crabs. Daz dropped some of the extras into his neighbours, an older taxi driver and his young Thai wife. He put the rest of the kangaroo tail back in the freezer and poured our writhing bucket of crabs into the laundry sink, which he filled with tepid water.

After a shower and half a bottle of stop-itch, we stretched out on the mattress Daz called a couch to watch DVDs for the rest of the afternoon. I can’t remember what we watched, but it definitely wasn’t Sex and the City. And it also wasn’t long before I heard tapping and scratching and claw clapping across the linoleum.

The crabs had self-liberated.

Daz jumped up from the couch mattress.

“You little fuckers,” he admonished the runaways. “Get back in here.”

He scooped them up with a dirty cereal bowl, tied their claws with rubber bands and returned them to the sink.

Later, Daz and his best mate pulled out the camp stove and started boiling water. Chilli mud crab for dinner, that was the promise. A dish that would out-price everything else on a restaurant menu, if it was even available. After the torture of crabbing, I was hoping at least for a Territory taste sensation.

But the chilli, ginger, coriander and lime I was expecting were conspicuously absent. Instead there was a bottle of sweet chilli sauce to go with the freshly broiled crab. This was chilli mud crab, share house style. The boys salivated over cylindrical tubes of crab leg, breaking them open with gusto and sucking out the contents. I was more tentative, picking up a crab claw awkwardly. Daz leaned over and stripped the meat from the shell and I popped it in my mouth. Underneath the veneer of sweet chilli, it tasted like manky estuary and rancid kangaroo tail. I took a couple more half-hearted bites and pushed my plate away. The taxi driving neighbour came over to join the party. He’d already eaten his fill of chilli mud crab at home, a more genuine article, no doubt. The beers were flowing. Taxi leaned back in his flimsy plastic chair, getting drunker and drunker as the plates piled with joints, claws and legs licked clean. The conversation moved from fishing to footy to the best ways to clean vomit out of car seat covers. They all had theories on that one.

After an hour or so of talking shit, Taxi leaned over suddenly and grabbed Daz by the collar.

“You trying to get in good with my wife? That why you bring around crabs?”

He shook Daz again.

“You stay away, mate, you just bloody stay away. I paid good money on the Internet; she’s married to me.”

Daz put up his arms in protest, and flecks of crab fell out of the corners of his mouth.

“Hey man! Hold up! I think you’ve got the wrong idea. She just said she wanted to make chilli crab.”

Taxi stood up then and his plastic chair clattered back behind him. He threw his empty beer bottle against the fence. The smash echoed around the apartment complex and we watched the pieces shatter into the palm trees. Everyone went silent. Taxi grunted and grabbed another beer to go, then staggered up the path, back to his unit, back to his wife. The last of our crabs boiled away on the gas burner.

Daz and his best mate shrugged it off. They kept drinking.

Taxi came over to apologise the next day, but I didn’t see his wife again.

I never got a taste for chilli mud crab either.

Despite this experience, I did go mud crabbing one more time, on the Dampier Peninsular with a guide who wore acid wash jeans. I pulled one out of a tree hollow with a metal hook and then proceeded to get lost in the mangroves for an hour with my best mate Nicki before acid wash jeans came and found us. We cooked the crab bounty over a fire, but it didn't taste much better than the broiled crab made by Daz and his mate. I've never gone back for more.

Despite this experience, I did go mud crabbing one more time, on the Dampier Peninsular with a guide who wore acid wash jeans. I pulled a crab out of a tree hollow with a metal hook and then proceeded to get lost in the mangroves for an hour with my best mate Nicki before acid wash jeans came and found us. We cooked the crab bounty over a fire, but it didn’t taste much better than the broiled crab made by Daz and his mate. I’ve never gone back for more. Live it, learn it. 

The odds are good, but the goods are odd

Ask anyone you like, Australia is in severe drought.

A man drought.

From Perth to Melbourne, Sydney right up to Brisbane, there’s many a single, smart, sassy, sexy woman who can’t find a man her equal. But in my neck of the woods, the roads are veritably paved with fellas: six to one, once you cross the Berrimah Line. Ringers, Army Jocks and diesel mechanics. Fitters, turners. Fitters and turners. FIFOs and fishermen. If you’re a lady looking for a bloke, this is the Holy Grail, especially if you like rough diamonds and men in high vis.

Yep. The odds are good, but the goods are odd.

That’s an expression that gets bandied about regularly by women up here. The dating world up north is rife with mercenaries, missionaries and misfits. I’ve dated many from their ranks: from aspiring politicians to helicopter pilots and professional gamblers with mother issues. I once went out with a guy who wore his bike helmet for our entire coffee date. Another time, I met up with a bloke who was about to get kicked off his mine site for three drug test fails in a row. When it comes to the odds being good and the goods being odd, believe me, I’ve done the leg work.

But the story I’m about to tell you was the oddest experience I ever had. And by odd, I mean freaking bat shit crazy.

His name was Rashid. And he was very good looking.

I met him in an ugly coffee club in the even uglier Broome Boulevard, in between K-Mart and half-price Sex and the City DVDs at Sanity. I wasn’t really a Broome Boulevard regular, but my friend Jen was up from Kununurra for an Internet date and she wanted a taste of the big smoke.

Jen was a character. She drove trucks at the Argyle diamond mine. Big trucks where she only came up to the hub cap by the scrape of her hard hat. All day, she’d drive back and forth, backward and forward, taking dust and rubble and miniscule flecks of diamonds from the pit.

Jen had done a bunch of outback jobs; working as a governess on a station and in a pub at Fitzroy Crossing. And it was from working in Fitzroy Crossing that she knew Rashid, who was trying on sunglasses across the Boulevard.

They waved and he raced over to give her a big hug.

“Jenny! Been a long time!”

They swapped gossip and tidbits from down the track, and when he left, I pumped her for details.

Who was that?

“He could be good for you!” she said. Jen didn’t remember too much about him, but he was a nice guy, she said. She hadn’t seen him for a few years, he had disappeared a bit suddenly after a goanna hunting trip with some of the local boys. I was intrigued.

Later that night, we went to Diver’s Tavern for drinks, gossip and to check out the local talent.

Rashid was there too, and he came over to talk. He sat right next to me and our thighs just barely touched. Later he came over to the bar when I was ordering a drink and lifted up my hair.

“Hello gorgeous,” he whispered.

A couple more hours, and a group of us moved on to the Roey, The Roebuck Hotel, made famous by wasters and wet T-shirt competitions. We hit the dance floor. Rashid performed the lawn mower, fed the chickens and imitated an eagle. He was the worst and best dancer I’d ever seen and I was smitten.

I didn’t expect to hear from him again but I did, the next day. We met at the Courthouse Markets. He said he missed me. I thought it was intense but thrilling.

Gas rallies and other things 034

That night we drove to Gantheaume Point and he spotted sting rays in the waves for me.

We watched the sun set over those red and ochre rocks. Rashid told me about how he used to be a paramedic, but one day he’d been handed a baby with barbed wire around its neck and he couldn’t do it anymore. So he moved up north, to the Kimberley.

We cuddled and he stroked my hair.

“You’re so beautiful, Bub”, he said.

A few days later, we walked on the beach, and his sister rang. He told her all about me.

“You’re going to love Miranda”, he said. “She’s the best girl I’ve ever met.”

Broome pics 044

Pretty soon, we started spending long afternoons and longer evenings in my Old Broome flat.

A couple of weeks later, my best friend was in town and she liked Rashid a lot too. Thought he was cute. Affectionate, sweet. We had a big night out together, dancing at Zee Bar, and they got on like a house on fire, although his hanger on mate didn’t do much for her.

After that, things started to go strange. One night, I asked Rashid to pick up some rice for dinner but he said his wallet had been stolen.

A few days later, he disappeared for hours to comfort a friend. It was past midnight when I got a knock on my screen door and he came in smelling of cigarettes and tinned rum. He got angry when I asked him to have a shower.

Rashid wouldn’t let me go over to his house.

He’d ask me to drop him off at the servo on the corner.

“I’m sorry, Bub”, he said.

“It’s just my housemates. And the house. That house is a mess. Pizza boxes, dirty dishes, the works. I don’t want to take you there. They won’t like it that you’re a white girl.”

Other times he’d tell me very bloody bedtime stories. Fights he’d seen, fights he’d been part of. The time they dug up his grandmother’s grave and found blood on her bones. And the cousin who lost his mind and cut off his penis. Rashid found him on the toilet, bleeding profusely with the dick still in his hand.

One day, I came home to find Rashid sitting on a fold out chair on my deck, head in his hands. He’d just got a phone call from home, Lightning Ridge, to say that his brother had committed suicide.

I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say so I just put my arms around him. We looked up flights on the Internet.

He disappeared to talk to a friend from work and packed a suitcase.

That night, we held eachother and didn’t sleep much.

I offered to take him to the airport.

“No Bub,” he said. “It’s OK. John from work will take me. I’ll be OK. I’ll call you as soon as I get there.”

He called me three hours later.

“I’m here, Bub, it’s pretty awful. I miss you already.”

Three hours seemed quick: Broome to Perth to Sydney and a train to Lightning Ridge. In fact, it didn’t seem possible.

“That was a quick flight”, I said.

“Yeah, yeah, they got me onto the best connections because of what happened, Bub.”

We got off the phone and I went for a walk on the beach with my friend Beth.

Rashid called me again, mid walk.

“Where are you?”

He sounded desperate.

Just on the beach, I said. The sand and wind were whirling around us, and the phone was cutting in and out.

I’ll call you when I get home. I hung up.

Beth suddenly launched into a story. She’d been living in the UK a few years ago, dating a girl who was a bit high maintenance. Big mood swings. Beth was just about ready to call it off when this girl’s grandmother died, and she flew back to Australia.

The next day, Beth walked into her local bar to find her girlfriend, sitting on a barstool.

“I don’t know why I just told you that story”, she said.

We looked at each other.

“He’s still in town”, she said.

He’s still in town.

The next day, after my radio show, I did a drive-by of Rashid’s workplace. And then I called their number.

Hi, there, I said…I’m looking for Rashid.

A voice that sounded very familiar said, “Who may I say is calling?”

I panicked and hung up.

Rashid rang me almost immediately.

His voice was hard. “Hey Bub, I haven’t heard from you for awhile. Don’t you like me anymore?”

Sure I do, I said. How are…how is….Lightning Ridge?

“My family are crazy,” he spat. “I’m going to come home.”

Don’t you think you should stay and help, with your brother and his family?

“Nup. Not after what they’ve said to me.”

Rashid, I’ve gotta go.

His voice got harder still. “Yeah? Go. You should go. The next time you see me, I’ll be hanging from a tree, I’ll be hanging from that mango tree outside your house. There’s nothing for me to live for anyway.”

That night, I could feel shadows creep around my pindan garden. My flat consisted of two dongas, with my bedroom in one and the bathroom in the other. I was too scared to cross the verandah.

The next day, I left the house to have dinner with a couple of other friends and told them the story.

“I know,” said Kate. “Tomorrow. I’ll ring his work. He won’t know my voice. I’ll ask to speak to him.”

She did it from work, from our blocked number.

“Hi, it’s Kate Matthews here. Can I please speak to Rashid?”

“Speaking!” replied a cheery voice.

She hung up. He was in Broome. He’d never left Broome.

Rashid rang me straight away.

“Hey Bub, what’s going on?”

I said he was lying. I said there was no Lightning Ridge and no brother and no one had died. I said he’d been watching me and hanging around the house and he should get some help.

He huffed and puffed.

“Actually…Actually, I just got in this morning. I was going to surprise you, But thanks a lot Miranda, thanks a lot. Thanks for nothing.”

He hung up.

I called the police and they promised to keep an eye out for me. I worried each time I reversed my car out from under the mango tree, worried that he’d be hanging from the branch. I still felt him around the house, at the end of missed calls and watching me from the car park when I went to work early in the morning.

Eventually I broke down and couldn’t leave my bedroom. I had to call in reinforcements. My friend Flic brought over a male friend one night, a solid station boy who had never told a violent bedtime story in his life. He shone the torch in every pindan crook and cranny. Nothing.

My friends Beth and Ryan put up security lights, triggered by human movement. In the meantime, I stayed in their spare bedroom. I was still scared of my house, of the shadows and especially of the mango tree in my front yard.

I felt like I was going crazy, so I ran away to Darwin for a few weeks. When I came back, I walked up and down Cable Beach, trying to decide whether I should stay. Eventually I found a trident shell the size of both my hands on the low tide watermark. I took it as a sign. I’d stick it out in Broome, at least until the end of my contract.

I never found out who Rashid really was. If he’d ever been a paramedic. If he was just a guy who liked to cheat on his girlfriend with gullible newcomers. If his housemates really hated white girls. If he had a drug problem. If he was a compulsive liar, or if he was mentally unstable.

It took me a long time to go on another date.

As they say, the odds are good but the goods are sometimes very odd.

My love affair with Cold Chisel

It’s always amusing to head south and see ’80s fashion on display – high waisted jeans, mesh singlets, Ken Done jumpers and pleather.

Because in the Territory, the ‘80s never really ended. Visit Casuarina Shopping Centre or the Humpty Doo Hotel; folk might be texting on an IPhone, but they’re still sporting the same haircut they had in 1983 and why the hell wouldn’t they?

Same goes for our music. While the young hipster things Down South might be listening to bands like Iguana Bloody Mary or The Macrame Wizards, we’re still enjoying a good meat and three veg diet of ‘80s pub rock with the occasional ‘90s breakthrough song. The Macrame Wizards are never going to get a sell out crowd at the Darwin Entertainment Centre. That’s a job for our ‘80s legends– Ross Wilson, Colin Hay, Paul Kelly or Barnesy. Or Farnsy for that matter, should he decide to do another farewell tour, and more power to him.

I never truly appreciated Aussie pub rock until I came to the NT. I was a lover of indie rock and ‘90s grunge; I smelled like teen spirit.

But I’ll tell you something for free. You’re never going to get the Adelaide River pub on the dance floor with The Pixies or Sleater-Kinney.

Chisel 1

Want to make 95% of the people at Daly Waters happy? Put on Khe Sanh. Two guys who were about to fight now have their arms around each other. Someone at the bar is reminiscing about the time Cold Chisel played the Diamond Beach Casino. The next is recalling what Ian Moss got up to at high school in Alice Springs. The guy next to him was actually in a band with Mossy back in the day. The dance floor is full. All because of Khe Sanh.

Being something of a sponge, I quickly got on board with the ‘70s and then the ‘80s of pub rock. The indie CDs moved to the back of the shelf, making way for Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, Icehouse, Men at Work, even 1927, which I’ve always secretly liked. I danced to The Boys Light Up at rodeos and started putting Flame Trees on road trip compilations. I began requesting Choir Girl at the Jabiru Social Club.

And then it was 2009. I finally went to see Jimmy Barnes live in concert at The Mangrove Hotel in Broome. My friend Woo came with me, even though it was a school night.

There were an array of black, red and green cans doing the rounds; the audience was liquored up and Barnesy was rocking the stage. Every so often the band’s PA system would trip the electricity for the whole hotel and the sound guys would scramble around hysterically. Barnesy, the true professional, would pick up on exactly the note he left off on, mid lyric if need be.

I left the concert giddy on pre-mix vodka and the power of ‘80s pub rock, and walked home to Old Broome with my ears still ringing.

By the time I moved back to the Territory, the unthinkable–or very thinkable–occurred. Cold Chisel announced a reunion tour, around Australia. They would play Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and they would play a show at the Gardens Amphitheatre in Darwin. Everyone knew their ‘80s haircuts had just been vindicated. The band was back together.

So one sticky build up October evening, I rode my bike to the Gardens and snuck into the Casino to get changed. The high rollers at the roulette table might have been oblivious to the Chisel factor, but Darwin was electric that night. If you’d seen the band in the ‘80s, you were there. If you were a johnny-come-lately like me, you were there. If you had two ears and a soul, you were at the concert, or at least up the hill behind the Buff Club peering over the black plastic.

I went on my own but found some friends in the middle of the crowd, and then a guy I vaguely recognised came over. He gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“Hey!” he said. “It’s good to see you!”

You too! I said.

“I’m so sorry”, he said. “I don’t remember your name”.

That’s OK, I said. I don’t remember your name either.

We’d met years ago playing Frisbee with friends; he’d been in Timor and I’d been in Broome and Alice Springs.

He was with a guy I knew from the Weather Bureau, and they hung out with my mates for the rest of the night.

We danced to Cheap Wine and Standing on the Outside. To songs I knew, and songs I didn’t. Cigarette lighters came out. It felt like everyone in the audience was hugging or crying or kissing. A few of them were probably throwing beer bottles. Or remembering other days, when they listened to this music and were younger and things were better and worse all at the same time.

Chisel 2

When it ended, two encores later, this man who didn’t remember my name got my number. I left the Gardens buzzing with attraction and music and anticipation and the stickiness of a build up evening in the Gardens.

That was the beginning of Mr Tea and me, a relationship built on the pub rock foundations of Cold Chisel.

Familiar faces

“Hey, I know you from somewhere.”

This happens a lot in Darwin.

I usually feign recognition, at least while I’m scanning my brain for parties, introductions, friends of friends.

Oh yeah, I recognise you, I normally say.

We must have met… somewhere.

But today, after an hour and a half of yoga, my social skills are lost somewhere between trikonasana and downward facing dog.

I don’t pretend.

Really? What’s your name?

“Gavin”, he says.

How do we know eachother?

“We met a few years ago…” He hesitates. “On RSVP”.

Now I remember. Two dates, one at the museum, one playing lawn bowls.

I’d thought Gavin was cute and I would have happily gone out with him again. I don’t know if it was my lawn bowling skills or my conversation or my hips, but I never heard from him again.

I saw Gavin out a few months later with a pretty blond girl, and ran into him another three years after that. He’d just got back from China and wanted to return.

Now his face is familiar but also different.

What have you been up to?

“Well”, he says. “I got smashed up.”

Did you have an accident, a fight?

I’m picturing Mitchell Street, a beer glass, 3am.

“I was on my motorbike…along Daly Street. Car came up the side,” he says.

“My pelvis got smashed. I’m all metal rods. And my brain, it got a bit…splattered.”

I look at his face more carefully and can see his eyes darting around, some of his facial muscles paralysed, the words just slightly scrambled.

God.

I’m so sorry, I say.

“I’m stuck in Darwin now”, he says. “Since the accident. I can’t leave.”

But there are worse places… We say it at the same time.

He smiles a little.

A life that could have, might have, never was flashes before me. A few years of relationship, then a car crash. Remnants of a motor bike. A partner with a smashed pelvis, splattered brain, putting his life and memories back together piece by piece, yoga class by yoga class.

That life’s not mine.

I shake his hand.

It’s nice to see you again, I say.

Take care of yourself. Maybe I’ll see you at this class. I come on Fridays.