Close the window
PULL OVER SHELL OUT
"Ah, the arse’s fallen out of it".
Johnno spat a nicotine spit over the edge and watched as the current stretched and twisted it before dragging it under. Satisfied, he turned back to his audience:
"Yeah. Fourth generation" he coughed. "Dunno if there’ll be a fifth but. Bastard bloody bureaucrats...".
‘Johnno’ Johnson was an oysterman like his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father before that. They’d all lived in the same riverside house, worked the same riverside lease, and on weekends drunk themselves to a stupor in the same riverside pub. The pub had been standing for 120 years, and there’d been a Johnno Johnson propping up the bar for nigh on 80 of them – typically doing ample justice to a fat Sydney pay cheque. And now the government seemed intent on obliterating a tradition overnight.
"Go on now kids", said mum, quick to see how the conversation was shaping: "Go and play. Have a nice run and stretch your legs. We’ll have to be back in the car soon, so make the most of it. And don’t go mucking around on the sand, it’s all muddy and I don’t want you little terrors messing up the seats". The two kids took off back down the precarious turpentine wharf, thrilled at the prospect of parole from the confines of the back seat.
"And stay where I can see you", she warned. "I don’t want any repeats of Coffs Harbour".
"Yeees mummy!!" they both shrilled in unison as they ran past the oyster lease mascot: a geriatric bitser whose last contact with soap and water had been in anticipation of the visit of a Fisheries minister who, to nobody’s dismay, had been called away at the last minute to a conference on Philippines reef ecology instead.
"Don’t worry missus, he won’t bite" said Johnno, following her gaze. "Not when he’s at that end of the wharf, anyway" And he laughed the Johnson family laugh: hearty and unencumbered by malice even after four generations of being generally stuffed around - by middlemen, suppliers, and restaurants, and now the rule makers and the property investors who were changing things upstream; it was tough enough in the old days when it was just the weather and the sea. Johnno, like the mutt, was territorial: easy as you please in the outside world, but there was a space where transgressions were not negotiable. Here that space was defined for man and dog by weathered hardwood planks, the smell of diesel and salt and mudflats and oyster liquor that on a hot day stood the visitor’s nose-hairs on end.
"I’ll shut the gate" said Johnno, "that way your kids can play with Stumpy and we can have a chat no worries’
"Why’s he called Stumpy?" asked Dad, returning from vague riverine musings.
"You don’t wanna know", grinned Johnno, as with habitual gesture he proffered them his rollie pack and papers before withdrawing his hand somewhat apologetically. "Oh yeah, I don’t s’pose you’d want one eh? A lotta people round here still smoke though, I know it’s no good for yer but I been smokin’ since I was fifteen. Not tailor-mades but, they’re too harsh. Pricey as well." He wiped the back of one large and calloused hand across his mouth as he pocketed the makings with the other. "I do like me rollies though…" he offered, as if the yellow-stained thumb and forefinger weren’t sufficient proof.
And a beer or ten after work, thought the lady to herself as she looked a little disapprovingly around the sagging sheds. The sign had looked promising enough: ‘Oysters direct to public’ it had said in runny blue paint, and the spot seemed ideal for a break on the long drive back from Coolangatta. The sun was getting low, making driving awkward, and the quiet little place amongst the she-oaks by the bridge promised a welcome rest from the highway; a place to let the kids run a bit while they could relax and watch the sun set before the next few hours of driving. Now this rather lived-in looking oysterman was telling them he couldn’t sell opened oysters, and she wrinkled her nose slightly in annoyance. The man caught the gesture and hastened to reassure her:
"Don’t worry about the smell, it’s just the mud flats around the mangroves over there. It’s still a healthy system, that’s the stuff the oysters feed off after all. All the oysters we harvest are inside on racks, it’s all one hundred percent".
"Oh no, that’s fine, I didn’t…" she offered in some confusion. Then, composing a cheery face, she prepared to make their excuses and find somewhere offering more facilities: "Well, the kids have probably had enough of a run…" But the sentence died on stunned lips, as her husband turned again to the man and said: "You know, I might have one of those rollies, if that’s alright."
She shot him a withering look, and folded her arms: "I thought you’d given up".
"Well, yeah, but it’s only a rollie and besides, I need a spell. I’ve just driven three hours straight and there are worse ways to wind down than with a quiet cig by the river"
"A man after me own heart" grinned Johnno, apparently oblivious to the friction between the couple. "Here ya go. Hey" he started, jerking his head over at the fridge standing by the office door. "I got some cold ones in there, if yer interested. I mean…" He paused meaningfully and an eyelid twitched in what could have been wink: "I can’t actually sell yer one…But if yer’d like ta chuck a coupla bucks into the kitty, eh?".
"Oh… Um sure, I s’pose… I mean, if that’s all right" said dad cautiously, careful not to look directly at his wife. It was not entirely clear whose reassurance he was seeking. "I’ve just finished my shift," he mumbled as he produced a coin from his pocket.
"That’s the way", beamed Johnno, looking as keen for company as a sale. "Me and the missus’ve got the same system when we go on a trip". Johnno handed over a beer and dad opened it, and the can made a promising snick and pop that sounded surprisingly loud over the still flat water. "Yeah", philosophised Johnno, absent-mindedly turning the coin over in his fingers as he looked at the lights now emerging on the opposite bank, "it’s a tough life. But the view from the office ain’t too bad". Then, slipping his hand inside his pocket, he turned back briskly to them and without preamble he grinned: "So now, can I fix yers up with some oysters?"
"But they’re not opened", she argued.
"That’s easy, all yer need’s an oyster knife"
"I don’t even think we’ve got one at home anymore, my father just about took his finger off with it a few years ago. And I can tell you we don’t have one in the car".
"Look, if that’s the problem I can fix yers up with one o’ them as well. Bloke round here makes the best oyster knives in the country, ships ‘em to restaurants and openers everywhere. Hang on, I’ll show yers mine" and he disappeared inside the shed.
"What do you think you’re up to?" she hissed at her husband while the man was gone. "We were supposed to be stopped somewhere nice and instead I’m standing here next to a swamp while you smoke and drink beer. Here, come on, give me a drag... Now..." she paused as with chin cocked she expelled the smoke to one side "if you’re trying to get even after that visit to my mother’s you can…"
"Relax", he said wearily. "I’m buggered, I’ve driven a long way today, I’ve been driving all holiday, and I just need a spell, okay?" Then, more entreatingly now, he went on "there’s something about this place, can’t you feel it? It’s like it could be twenty or fifty years ago. Look at those timbers," he said gesturing around, "a lot of that stuff would have been split and sawn by hand. The hills upriver were timber country you know."
"All I know is I’m tired too and it’s me that has to drive next. I want to rest somewhere nice before getting back on the highway, and an overgrown shell midden is not my idea of nice. And now you’ve let this character get started and it’s going to take the powers of hell to shut him up". She finished in a whisper when, as if on cue, Johnno reappeared with his knife.
"Here we go, the oysterman’s special" he said approvingly, holding out the implement for inspection. The oyster pro’s choice proved to be a rough affair, with a coarse but very utilitarian-looking blade. The bluish steel came to a sharp point, like a spear tip, and was hafted into a knob of turned pine fixed with a collar made of half-inch copper water pipe.
"Spring steel" said Johnno, "the bloke makes ‘em from old saw blades from the mill. You can use ‘em all day and they still last a dog’s age".
Dad took the knife and turned it over in his hand. The steel had obviously been roughed down on a bench grinder and then hand-finished with a file. It looked crude, unpretentious and thoroughly efficient. "How much do they go for?" he asked.
"Mmmm… ten bucks?" Johnno asked more than affirmed.
"And the oysters?"
"Five bucks a dozen", responded the oysterman much more confidently.
She could see her husband’s hand moving towards his pocket and asked with a panicky note in her voice:
"But I still can’t understand why you can’t sell them opened…"
"You can blame the government for that, missus", Johnno replied with rueful relish, pleased to be able to climb back onto the favoured hobby horse of a rather populous stable. "You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff they come up with."
Mentally, she kicked herself. In attempting to prevent her husband from opening his wallet, she had given the man an opening he was now steaming into without a backward glance..
"These days" said Johnno, pausing for a swig of beer and a drag on his cigarette, "to sell opened oysters yer’ve gotta have an opening room. And it’s gotta have the lot: ice, running water, extractors, special lining. It’s even gotta have the rounded corners like they have in hospitals. Bacteria, y’ know. Yer don’t get any change outta 25 grand. So now I can’t sell me own opened oysters to the public. I gotta sell ‘em all to the middle men. Those buggers are the only ones who can afford a bloody opening room."
"I know how you feel", offered dad, "I’m in business for myself and the agents always have you over a barrel".
"Too right they do. Look, I get maybe 4 bucks a dozen for me oysters from the opener, and he sells ‘em for seven: hardly lifts a finger and he makes about the same off ‘em as I do. And then the bloody restaurants charge the public eighteen! It’s always the grower that loses out".
"Well why don’t you put in an opening room too?" She asked almost despite herself.
"I’m flat out just paying for m’ licences and permits and the rest. And I’ve got upkeep: boats and stuff to maintain. I spend a fortune every year on racks and stakes. And if I did put in a room, I’d hafta have someone in there opening oysters all day to make it pay. Before, I could spend a coupla hours a day opening ‘em meself if I wasn’t too busy, and make a bit more on top. Yer get pretty quick at it."
"Is there much technique to it?" asked dad. "Aren’t you supposed to go in through the back or something? I was always worried about stabbing myself..."
"There’s a trick to it, yeah. Look, here, I’ll show yers". And Johnno picked out a large oyster and placed it on the bench. "Now, what yer never do is go through the hinge, that’s how you cut yerself. What y’do is yer go in through the top, just here to the left, see?" And he placed the point of his knife on the upper shell, about a centimetre behind the lip and somewhat left of centre.
"This is where the foot is right? So yer just twist and push down nice’n’easy like this". The muscles on the man’s forearm bunched as he applied a steady downward force, there was a grating sound they could feel in their teeth and then a crack as the shell fractured. "Then y’ just work the blade inside, give ‘er a twist and up she comes". Effectively, the shell clicked and protested as Johnno burrowed with the point, and then with a turn of the wrist the milky inner surface was gleaming pearlescent in the fading light.
"There’s the foot there, see? It’s always in the same spot, near the front and to the left. It’s the weakest point, the hinge is for mugs or blokes who don’t need all ten fingers. Now, all yer do is cut the foot away with the knife edge. It’s easy, see? And if yer wanna present it on the shell, yer just take out any broken bits and turn ‘im over"
As he spoke, he flicked away the small fragments of shell with the knife point, then slid the blade under the smooth grey sac and turned it downside up. Plump, firm, with a soft mucilaginous sheen, the shellfish looked every bit the delicacy it was. Johnno gave it a glance of professional appraisal and then raised it to his lips and tipped it back with relish. "Waste not want not", he said with a stagey wink, and took a loving pull at his beer.
The couple had almost swallowed in unison at the conclusion of the performance. They exchanged a look and dad arched an eyebrow in a see-what-I-mean gesture; the promise of fresh oysters was why they’d stopped after all. Whatever the man’s personal qualities might be, his credentials as an oyster grower certainly seemed to be in order. The present little display also made it clear his salesmanship wasn’t too far behind.
"You know, I think I’ll get two dozen oysters and one of your knives", he found himself saying, mentally comparing the salty, slimy bliss on offer for twenty dollars (knife included), with all the ephemeral plastic kids’ rubbish they’d paid for that trip. He took a quick glance over at his wife, who rolled her eyes briefly but said nothing. There’d be time for a few well-chosen comments later, she reasoned - and exactly how much later would determine the kinds of comments to be made.
Johnno put a short length of 6-inch PVC water pipe end-up on the bench, and placed a nylon mesh bag inside. And he talked on as he set about dropping oysters inside.
"These are yer bistro oysters", he was saying, "yer cocktail ones are the small ones, then there’s the bistro ones like these. The restaurant grade are the big ones"
"Hang on", put in dad. "Will they be right for the trip?’
"Right? You could drive to Melbourne and back with this lot. It’s when you open ‘em that they die. These’ll keep for a week. Just put ‘em in the fridge at home and open ‘em when yer want. Mind you, some people have no idea. There was this lady from Southport who bought fifteen dozen for a party from a mate o’ mine up at the Tweed, and of course they had t’ be opened. That night, 80 people ended up in hospital with food poisoning and next thing she’s suing me mate fer damages.
"So the case goes t’ court and the defence barrister starts asking questions and it all comes out. She’s driven back and decides to stop at Surfers on the way t’ buy more stuff for this do she had on. And she’s left the opened oysters in the back of the Mercedes fer three hours on a stinkin’ hot day while she does the other shopping. Well, that’s killed the lot, right? But they haven’t been dead long enough to start ter smell, have they? So she gets home and puts ‘em in the fridge and serves ‘em up and then half her guests end up in intensive care. Crikey, I mean common sense’d tell yer that…"
Just then there was a squeal from the bank, and mum and dad looked over in a panic to where the kids were pointing at the water in front of them, all slapping tails and arching oily grey backs against the soft felt of evening dimness.
"Dolphins are chasin’ the mullet" said Johnno, scarcely looking up. "There’s big schools o’ mullet go up the coast this time o’ year and the dolphins follow ‘em. The jewfish come in after ‘em too. I got a nice one last week in the channel down from the bridge. Don’t mind a bit of a fish when I get the time".
"D’you fish much?" asked dad a little wistfully.
"Nah, maybe only once a week. I’m flat out maintainin’ the lease and doin’ me books. I got inspectors comin’ around whenever they like, it seems. Jeez, I can’t believe those blokes from Fisheries. They’re always comin’ up with new rules about what I’m s’posed to do, and when I work those out they go an’ make new ones again. It’d be all right if they knew what they were on about, but they’re all uni kids who haven’t got a clue. Struth," he laughed, "don’t tell ‘em there’s dolphins in here, or they’ll whip some new health regulation together and have me rowin’ around with a prawn net lookin’ for dolphin shit all day. Mate, could I tell yer some stories…"
And after he’d filled the bag and removed it from the pipe and tied it off, Johnno rolled another smoke and cracked another beer and leaned back against the bench. He showed no sign of being ready to collect his money just yet.
"There was this lady down the research station," he said inside a long exhalation of bluish tobacco smoke, "who had these oysters in a tank. Anyway, she went on leave overseas and they got someone else t’ look after ‘em. And they all started to die. So they got in the big expert from Sydney, and he couldn’t figure it out. Then they flew out some bigger expert from the States and he couldn’t work it out either. So finally they rang this lady on holidays in Greece or wherever an’ asked ‘er what she’d been doin’ differently, and she says nothin’ particular, just changin’ their water twice a day. And that’s when they twigged, see? Clean seawater twice a day, like the tides, you with me? All these bloody geniuses, and they’d been changing the water once a week if that. They forgot that oysters are filter feeders and go by the tides." Johnno shook his head at the memory and went on:
"Then there was the time when the oysters kept dyin’ on the stakes. This mystery disease was killing fifty percent of ‘em before they were big enough ter harvest. So they ordered an investigation and got all these boffins - bloody thing cost millions - and yer know what they recommended in the end? Put in double the amount of oysters, that way when half of ‘em died we’d be left with the right amount. Bloody hell, a five-year-old coulda come up with that! And all that money they’re muckin’ around with comes from my bloody permits and taxes… Yer wouldn’ read about it would yez?" He said incredulously, eyes squinted up against the smoke of his cigarette and the injustices of a purblind bureaucracy.
The kids had opened the gate and were now running back along the wharf; the old dog was wandering up the road towards an old utility whose headlights had just dimmed. "Mum, Dad! Did you see the dolphins? Did you? They were dolphins, weren’t they? We heard them breathing and everything! Weren’t they great?"
"Yes, they were dolphins", said mum as she began to shepherd them back to the car. "Weren’t you lucky to see them so close?" She looked back over her shoulder at her husband. "It’s getting dark. We should think about getting on our way".
"Yeah" he said, and turned back to Johnno. "Huh, kids. Cost us a fortune to take them to see the dolphin show at the aquarium and they didn’t seem too fussed. Now look at them: I reckon they’ll be talking about this for weeks".
"Yeah. Sometimes at night when I’m in bed I’ll hear ‘em through me winder as they swim past, y’ can hear this ‘whsshhh!’ from their blowholes. When it’s still like this and they’re in close they’ll even wake me up. Anyway, that’s me missus waitin’ for me over there in the ute, so if yer all fixed up I’d better finish off here or me tea’ll be gettin’ cold".
"So what did that come to again?"
"Let’s see, two dozen of the bistros and one knife, that’s twenny. Hope yer don’ mind if I don’t give yer a receipt." Dad smiled no as he gave him a fifty, and Johnno scratched his head.
"Aww struth, hold on." He disappeared back into the shed and emerged with three grimy tens, and a knife which he put into dad’s hand.
"There yer go, I picked out a good one. Be careful, it’s got a point on it. You certainly don’t need it any sharper. Remember, just go in through the top, at the front an’ ter the left like I told yer. Here" and he picked up a piece of styrofoam "I’ll stick it in ‘ere so it’s safe"
"Okay, well, thanks…" he trailed off, not quite sure what kind of connection had been established, or how to break it.
"Mate, no worries. Stop by again next time, I’ll look after yers. An’ if yer got any friends headin’ up this way, tell ‘em ter ask fer Johnson’s. Best oysters on the coast." They shook. "Oh yeah", he called as dad walked down the wharf "make sure yer wipe the blade before yer use it. I put some Vaseline on it, keeps ‘em from rusting".
Back at the car, he put the oysters and knife in the boot. His wife was already behind the wheel and she started the engine as soon as he opened the front passenger door. The kids were in the back still babbling about dolphins: "Did you see that big one? I reckon it was a shark". "Sharks are scared of dolphins dummy. The dolphins chase them away." "Well it was pretty big for a dolphin" "So what would you know anyway…"
With the youngsters happily disputing what a pack of dolphins would do to any unfortunate shark in their midst, mum turned to dad and drawled "So, all through with our bonding session are we?"
"Okay, look: I’m sorry. You’re right, that was selfish. But the place just felt so different. As soon as I was on the wharf looking at the river I was already half-wishing I had a beer in my hand… Some time to think. I had a bit of a moment I s’pose. With the sun setting there you could imagine it was a hundred years ago…"
"Wharves didn’t smell like diesel oil a hundred years ago, sweet". Looking purposefully ahead through the windscreen, she went on. "Now come on, let’s go. I still want to get a snack and a cup of coffee somewhere. I’m hungry, the kids need to find a toilet and there’s still three hours to Sydney - hopefully enough time for you to figure out where to stick those oysters when we get home. Although I have some suggestions I might make". Sensing the hurt, she turned and gave him a smile: "Look hon, don’t mind me. I’m tired too. The kids have worn me to a frazzle and I just wanted a nice spot to stop. And your notion of the ideal spot isn’t necessarily mine. Still… those dolphins were pretty special, hey?" And she leaned over and gave him a quick kiss, then eased off the handbrake and pointed the car back towards the highway.
With a little faraway furrow on his brow, he mused as they made their way:
"Hey, don’t you think it’s funny how there’s still stuff that comes by the dozen? Who ever heard of buying twenty oysters, or twenty eggs? They seemed to count differently back in the old days…"
"Maybe they all used to have six fingers", she countered, "small towns… you know. Now, keep your eyes peeled for milk bar or something. And no banjo playing kids out the front, hmm?"
Next evening, with everything unpacked and feeling rested, he took the oysters from their string bag in the fridge. He placed the first one on a solid piece of board and took the knife from its improvised foam scabbard. As Johnno had said, it was slick with Vaseline, which he carefully wiped away.
"I can’t believe how anyone can eat those things", called the eldest over her shoulder with gaze still fixed on the TV. "They look like elephant snot or something".
He gave his wife a brief grin, then placed the tip of the blade over the shell - to the left and about a centimetre back from the edge, like he’d been told. He pushed down with steady pressure and twisted the tip, and with unexpected ease the shell gave way. He pushed the blade inside, and with a turn of his wrist prised the upper part away. A subtle salt perfume, elusive and suggestive, was already rising to their noses. He cut the foot and turned the animal over on the shell.
"One oyster, ‘presented’ and accounted for", he announced.
"My hero" she said drolly, although visibly impressed. "Well then. Only twenty-three to go. I’ll go put the wine on ice: should be nicely chilled by the time you’re done".
"Uhmm, there’s only twenty-two." She arched an eyebrow and he shrugged. "I guess he took out a couple more for the beer", he offered a little sheepishly.
"I could have told you two bucks was too cheap. Saw you coming, didn’t he?"
"Wait, hold on" he stopped her as she turned away to organise the wine. Opening another in the same fashion, he handed it to her then raised the first to his lips in an invitation for her to do the same. "Waste not want not" he winked, and as she watched a little quizzically he tipped it back.
"Gawd, that was the best oyster I’ve ever tasted!"
"It ought to be," she deadpanned. "You risked weeks in the doghouse to get it".
"Fine. You do the jokes while I keep eating. Here, gimme…"
"Uh-uh. All mine!" and she laughed as she up-ended the shell into her opened mouth. Her face suddenly became reflective, almost serious, as the rich cream burst over her tongue, and hints of brine and iodine and intimacy played across her palate.
"Mmm!" She said eventually, eyes half closed, reluctant to relinquish the sensation. "You know, I have really got to agree. Listen…" she hastened to add as he placed a few more on the board ready to open, "Maybe we should make them last a while, huh? How long did that guy say these things would keep in the fridge?"
© V. Stevenson