I’ll be posting a short story on this page from time to time. My offering today is a short story based on an adventure one of my nieces had in Darwin. Yes, she has the tattoo.
It was a typical Territory night: hot, muggy and me with a thirst that rivalled that of a thousand camels.
I’d made it into Elliott with my rig after an eight hour drive down from Darwin. I was due for a stopover so the plan was to hit the pub and do something about that thirst. I parked at the back of the hotel under a big ghost gum and headed towards the bar.
Being a Friday night, the place was packed to the rafters and spilling out onto the verandah. There were more mullets and flannel shirts than I’d seen in a while, I thought, as I shouldered my way to the bar and ordered a VB. The first one didn’t touch the sides and the second was halfway down before I stopped to look around.
Same old, same old, I thought. In the corner, there was a bloke with a guitar trying to make himself heard over the hubbub. I couldn’t tell what he was singing: some corny Country & Western song. They’re always popular out here. Myself, I’m more of a Golden Oldies fan. A bunch of girls were bopping on the dance floor while the men were either playing darts or pool. There was a fair crowd around the pool tables and I wondered if I could get a game after I’d had another beer.
“Gimme another stubby, Jimbo.” A woman’s voice came from behind me, followed by a shove in the back. “Strewth, sorry mate,” came the apology. “It’s bloody crazy in here tonight, eh?” She wriggled in beside me, grabbed a stubby from the barman’s hand and chugged it down straight. She burped loudly. “Jeez, that’s better,” she said and perched her butt on the bar stool next to mine. “Sorry about the shove, lost my balance for a moment.”
I turned to look at her more closely. She was in her late twenties, I guessed, tall and gangly, with blue eyes and a mop of curly brown hair. She was wearing jeans and a tank top which showed off numerous tattoos on her arms and back. She noticed me giving her the once over and her friendly face soured a little.
“Got a problem, mate?” she said.
“No, no,” I hastened to reply. “I like to see who I’m talking to, that’s all.” And I introduced myself. “G’day, I’m Harry Barclay.”
“G’day, Harry, I’m Jessie McCusker. Nice to meet you.” She held out a hand.
“Quite a grip you’ve got there,” I said as I extracted my mangled digits. “Roustabout, are you?”
“Nar, I’m a roughneck. I’m working on the fracking exploration in the Beetaloo Basin, south of Mataranka.”
I ordered my third beer and offered to shout her. “You ready for another?”
“Yep, thanks mate.”
“So what are you doing in Elliott?” I asked. “Not much in the way of fracking here.”
“Rostered off for five days,” she said. “Heading down to the Alice to see my boyfriend.”
“He’s working down there?”
“Nar, he’s in jail. I go down once a month to catch up.”
She didn’t offer any further information and I felt I shouldn’t ask so we sat and drank our beers in silence.
“Nice tattoo.” I re-opened the conversation by indicating a tattoo on her left forearm, which spelled Croc Bait in cursive script.
Her eyes brightened, obviously ready to tell a tale she had spun many times before.
“Yup, got that after a bit of night fishing in Darwin Harbour.”
I looked at her, eyebrows raised, and tilted my head to indicate she should carry on.
“Now that Denny’s in the can, fishing is about all I do when I’m not working,” she continued. “I’m only allowed to visit once a month, so the rest of the time I head up to Darwin. Always been keen on fishing, since I was a nipper. Me old man and I used to go out in his tinny, night after night.” She sighed and looked down as she said quietly, “He’s dead now. Died last year. Really miss the old bastard.”
I made noises of commiseration and waited for the story to continue.
“So this night I was down on the beach near the pier,” she said. “By myself, of course. I don’t like company when I’m fishing. Anyway, I got onto this real big one. It was pulling me so hard I thought the line would snap. I’m hanging on like grim death, slipping on the mud but determined not to lose it.” She paused for another mouthful of beer.
“Slipped on me arse, I did.” She shook her head. “All the dickheads up on the pier are watching and laughing at me as I try to get back up and still hang onto the rod. I’m finally getting to my feet and I realise the line’s gone loose. Bugger me, I’d lost the fish.”
She paused again, this time for effect. “Then I saw why I had no drag on the line. My catch had come out of the water and it wasn’t a fish, it was a bloody croc. Coming straight at me. I dropped the rod and tried to run but I slipped again and fell backwards. Before I could get to my feet, the bastard was on me. It had me by the boot.”
By this time, I wasn’t the only one listening. Everyone around us had stopped their own conversations to hear how she managed to escape the crocodile’s jaws.
“So there I am, screaming for help and the old croc is dragging me by the foot into the water. You’d think someone would have come down, wouldn’t you?”
“Nobody came to help?” A woman further down the bar leaned forward to ask the question.
“Nope, not a one.”
“So what happened?”
Jessie laughed. “Dad never stopped telling me to tie my shoelaces when I was a kid but I was always in too much of a hurry.” She looked down at her Doc Martens and, sure enough, the laces were hanging loose. “Anyway, the old croc was having a hard time with my steel caps, shaking his head this way and that. I’m screaming and scrabbling around in the mud, trying to get away.
“Suddenly, the croc gives one almighty heave and my boot comes off, complete with my sock. He’s still backing away, thinking he has me but I’m up on my feet, running up that beach like … well, like a croc is after me.”
“Struth!” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “That was a close one.”
She nodded her thanks as somebody bought her a beer and passed it along the bar.
“So what happened then?” I asked.
“I went back to the caravan park.’
“That’s it? You didn’t report it to the police?”
“Yeah, I called the cops in the morning and the water police did a search of the harbour. They don’t like the crocs coming up on the beach. Anyway, they caught a croc in the area and tranquilised him, planning to send him to one of the farms. And there, snagged on his teeth, was my sock.. They gave it to me as a souvenir.”
“Did you keep it?” The barman had joined the conversation too.
She looked at him in amazement. “What for? It was shredded. Nope, I chucked it in the bin.”
She sat back and waved her stubby in the air. “But I beat the croc. So I got the tattoo. Croc Bait, that’s me.”
Copyright Alene Ivey 2020