Swapping stories with a barracouta sage


Barracouta swimming in the oceanHe was sitting on the bench just inside the front doors of the Community Health Centre. His left arm was in a sling and his sweater looked like it was heavily padded at the shoulder. Propped beside him was a gnarled, polished walking stick. He looked straight at me as I passed so I nodded and said, 'Gooday.'

'Morning, mate,' he said.

The automatic doors began to slide smoothly open as I approached, but just as I was about to step through he called out, 'You wouldn't be going to Queenscliff, mate, would you?'

'Sorry, no. I'm going the other way.'

'No worries,' he said. We smiled at each other.

As I walked across the car park I reflected on my instant reply. Why couldn't I go to Queenscliff? It was about a ten-minute drive and I had plenty of time.

I went back into the foyer. 'Look, I could take you to Queenscliff if you ...'

His face lit up. He wasn't waiting for anyone in particular, just hoping for a lift.

'Can't drive, mate, y'see. The quack won't let me. Buggered the shoulder, broke the arm as well.'

He struggled to his feet, leaning his good arm on the stick. He was tall and lean, an old man, but a maverick mop of white hair and a lively ironic look to him made it very difficult to guess just how old.

'I reckon I'd manage to drive actually, but the coppers might take a dim view. So I just sit here each time, after I've seen the man, until I can cadge a ride. He reckons I've only got to come twice more.'

My ute was full of tools and assorted junk. When I had cleared the front seat for him, he folded his long frame in and we combined our efforts to arrange his seat belt around the sling.

'Name's Alan,' he said.

'Brian.' We shook hands and then we were off to Queenscliff.

'Well, it was a strange business,' he said in answer to my inevitable question about how he had come by his injuries. 'I'm a professional fisherman,' he said. 'Couta. I've fished the entire South Australian and Victorian coast line for barracouta for 70 years. I turn 90 next week.'

The 'strange business' happened on his boat, the Harriet. 'We weren't even at sea. Me and Albie were just cutting up some bait when — from what he tells me — my eyes just went up into me head and I keeled right over. Next thing I know I'm in hospital and not worrying too much about fish.' He had landed on his left arm and the point of his shoulder — a dead weight.

'Well, it could've been worse. I've never had anything more than a hook through me hand and a few bruises in all the years, so I can't complain. Bit of a mystery what happened. The quack says it could've been 'benign vertical something or other'. Not too bloody benign.' He grinned.

When we arrived in Queenscliff he said, 'Straight through the town and round to the docks. It's the very last street. I was born on the beach down here. Mother was helping clean a catch of couta when, apparently, I decided it was time to cast off.'

He directed me into a narrow street flanked by silent dry-docked boats, sheds full of marine gear and, in between, stretches of quiet, lapping water.

'This is good timing,' he said. 'Meals on Wheels are due in about half an hour and then when I've had lunch I'll meet Albie down at the boat. I'm really indebted to you, mate. This is me, here.'

We stopped in front of a high paling fence behind which, partly visible through a ramshackle gate, was an old weatherboard house.

'They're high off the ground these buggers, aren't they.' He meant the ute — he was easing himself from the cabin while I tried to steady him by holding his 'good' arm. With a last grunt he stood at the door, and I handed him his stick.

He gestured towards the beach beyond the marina.

'I caught six sharks just off that point when I was a young feller.'


He looked scornful. 'Grey Nurse.'

'All the best,' I said. 'Take care of yourself.'

'I'm right as rain — and thanks again.' He turned and walked slowly through the gateway.

Some time soon, I'll take a stroll through the docks and try to find the Harriet, a humble couta boat among all the swaying masts, shining decks and sleek, curving hulls. I'd like to have a yarn with Alan and Albie. I want to tell them that, as a nine-year-old, the first fish I ever caught was a barracouta off the Hampton breakwater. And that the way that famously aggressive fish smashed into my bait and then fought, jumped, splashed and tail-walked all the way to the rocks made me a fisherman forever, even if I live to 90.

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Barracouta image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, barracouta, Queenslcliff



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Existing comments

My wife and I have just spent 90 minutes in a discussion about God and Spirituality with some mutual friends. Too bloody hard for us! Then I found Brian's story of "Swapping stories with a barracouta sage" and that made the difference. Restored our faith in the human race and almost found me a God I could believe in. Thanks Brian
George of Yokine WA | 13 September 2013

Didn't see Moby-Dick by any chance?
Pam | 13 September 2013

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