Besides the Wanderer, there were only a few businesses currently operating in the center of Fisherman’s Creek. There was the bakery, and the usual bare minimum to keep a town running – a bank, a small supermarket, a post office. There was a clothing and accessories shop, run by one Margaret Latham, a witch of a woman who spent most of her workday chain-smoking in the back of her shop, where she had disconnected the smoke alarm. A ways down Main Street, there was the petrol station, which also served coffee, cold drinks, and any foodstuff that could be kept warm in a bain-marie. There were the small-town usuals – a fish and chip shop, a café, a small hardware and farming equipment shop – and not much else. There were plenty of shopfronts, but most had their windows newspapered over and sported ‘For Sale’ signs.
Further out, along Redgum Street, there was a football oval, the home of the Fisherman’s Creek Tigers. There was a tin shed with an outhouse that served as the club’s facilities, which was frequently the target of teenage graffiti.
Then there were residential streets, with housing for Fisherman’s Creek’s four hundred and sixty four residents. Most houses were small, and squat – they clung to the earth, like molluscs on a ship’s hull. They came in a variety of colours and states of repair, but one quality bound them together. They were all old, with even the newest houses only having been built in the fifties.
Finally, at the very edge of what could be called Fisherman’s Creek, there was a church, hidden amongst the tall gums trees. It was built some way back from the road, only metres from the edge of the creek itself. It had been constructed in 1913, two years before the founding of the town, and it showed. It was a surprisingly large, stone brick building, almost forbidding with its dark, heavy doors. The moisture in the air, coupled with the warmth, meant that the bricks were spotted green with moss. Combined with a lack of upkeep which had resulted in a dense undergrowth surrounding the building as the bush reclaimed the land, the whole thing had the appearance of being much older even than it actually was. It looked as if it had grown there – or, possibly, dragged itself out of the creek nearby.
Taken as a whole, it was obvious that Fisherman’s Creek was not a thriving community. Time and seclusion had eaten at it, and while it wasn’t dead, it was certainly well on the way. No one came to Fisherman’s Creek anymore, which might go some way towards explaining why it so captured the imagination of the residents when Carter Murphy did come into town, walked up Main Street, and stepped through the doors of the Wanderer.
Henry Oaks was sitting on a stool at the bar of the Wanderer, sipping his coffee and scanning the local paper. Not for the first time – nor the last, he was sure – he longed for a morning cigarette. He’d quit immediately following the early death of his wife to lung cancer, and vowed never to go back, but still the old urges remained. While he sat, Gwen Haines, his lone employee, busied herself wiping tables and placing chairs. They were still hours from opening, but Henry couldn’t stand the quiet emptiness of his house in the mornings, and Gwen hated the feeling of not being busy. So every morning, early in the morning, the two would meet at the doors to the Wanderer, barely exchanging a word, and find some piece of busywork to occupy themselves inside.
As Gwen set about sweeping up the detritus from last night’s grand final victory celebrations, there was a knock at the door. She looked up, but she could only make out a blurred silhouette through the door’s coloured glass window. Leaning the broom against a table, she opened the door to find a thirty-something fair-haired man, carrying a backpack and looking apologetic.
“Hi, I’m looking for Henry Oaks?”
The man was unshaven, and desperately in need of a haircut. His clothes – faded jeans and a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up – were clean, but holes and loose threads revealed their age. He was thin, but not reedy. His exposed forearms, Gwen noticed, were tight with working muscle. His eyes were a dull green.
Behind her, Henry had stood up, bringing his coffee mug to the door. He eyed the newcomer cautiously.
“Can I help you, mate?”
The newcomer shifted awkwardly.
“Yeah, maybe. I’m actually new here in town and I was hoping to stay for a while, a few weeks maybe. I was told by, um… one of the ladies at the bakery…”
“Stacey, or Lauren, maybe.” Henry put him out of his misery, and was rewarded with a sheepish grin.
“Yeah, thanks. She said you might have work going?”
Gwen had moved back inside and retrieved her broom, but she was keeping one eye on the stranger. Now she spoke up.
“We could have used you yesterday, when we had the footy boys in. It’s going to be quiet for a long while now, probably until-“
She paused, shifted mental gears.
“Not much going on here, I’m afraid. There wouldn’t be much work. But I suppose I could find something for you to do.”
He looked around thoughtfully, then moved inside, motioning for the man to follow him. The man stepped in, and Henry pointed to the floor next to the door.
“You can drop your bag there for the moment if you want. What’s your name?”
The man dropped his bag by the door, then walked over and offered his hand to Henry.
He shook Henry’s hand, then walked over and offered it to Gwen, who shook it briefly before returning to her sweeping.
Henry led Carter across the main floor of the Wanderer, leading him through a set of metal double doors and into the kitchen. He picked up a folder filled with handwritten and printed recipes and handed it to Carter.
“Can you cook?”
Carter flipped through the recipe book.
“I’ve done a few stints as a cook in a few places. Seems like pretty standard pub stuff, if you don’t mind my saying.”
Henry waved a hand dismissively.
“We can’t get many fancy ingredients down here, and anyway, no one who comes here wants anything too exotic. Pretty set in our ways here in Fisherman’s Creek. Can you cook that stuff?”
Carter nodded, and Henry took the book back.
“I’ll put you on the kitchen, then. That’ll leave Gwen on bar and I’ll serve. It’ll be easy work. There’s a lot of tables out there but we’ll be lucky to fill half of them at any one time on a given night. How do you feel about working bar some nights, too?”
Carter indicated he was happy to work bar, and Henry looked satisfied.
“I don’t think we’ll need you up there while Gwen’s there, but sometimes towards the end of a night things get a little hairy when the old geezers have had a bit too much, so I’ll keep an eye on it and tap you on the shoulder if I need you to go out. We’ll have a trial shift before I bother putting you on the books or anything. Can you work tonight? Where are you staying?”
Carter was looking around the kitchen, opening and shutting drawers, familiarising himself with the layout. He looked at Henry.
“Tonight’s fine. As for where I’m staying… I heard you might have a room?”
Henry tapped his chin thoughtfully.
“There’s a room upstairs. It’s not very big and I think it’s still full of junk, but there’s a bed in there, and I can arrange for sheets and things.”
Carter looked astonished.
“You’re really going to let me stay here? You barely know me.”
“I like the look of you. Besides, you’ll have to get through a shift before you get to stay here, and once word gets out that there’s an outsider working here, everyone in town is going to want to get a peek at you and stick their nose in your business.”
Henry opened the kitchen door and held it while Carter stepped through.
“If you’re no good, I’ll find out. And I wouldn’t mind a slightly lighter workload. I will need some personal details before I let you move in here, though. Plus the room will come out of your pay check.”
Carter nodded. That was reasonable, and pretty standard for this kind of transient employment, as he well knew. He walked over to his bag and removed a plastic binder filled with printed sheets, which he handed to Henry.
“Photocopies of ID and everything are in there, plus some references from previous jobs, in case you wanted them. Is there anything I can do in the meantime?”
Gwen overheard, and handed him the broom.
“You can sweep, if you like. I’ll go start clearing out the room, in case you do stay.”
She walked away towards the staircase at the rear of the Wanderer, jet-black ponytail swaying rhythmically back and forth as she walked, like a metronome. As she ascended the stairs, Carter heard the jingle of a loaded keyring.
Henry resumed his place at the bar, draining his coffee mug as he did so. Carter began to sweep. Warm, early morning sun streamed in through the windows.
It was one of those perfect, peaceful moments, and it hung in the air for a long time.
A young wallaby, ears and noise twitching, carefully approached the creek, paused for a moment to look around, then dipped its head and drank deeply. Above it, a kookaburra bird called out, the sudden laughing sound startling the small marsupial. It bounded a short distance, downstream, then stopped, listening. When it heard nothing, it returned to the water, and dipped its head again. Dragonflies buzzed and dipped in the air. The young wallaby raised its head and scratched its ear, its fur warm in the sunlight.
There was a thunder crack, and its head snapped forward, half of it missing, blood streaming into the water of the creek. From his hiding spot in the scrub, a large redheaded man stepped forward, his hands scarred from fighting, a smoking rifle in his hand.