“A property developer?”
The woman nodded emphatically.
“Bigshots from the city are always sending people out to small country towns like ours to tear down their houses and drill for oil and build hotels.” Sensing this claim needed some validation, she added, with the air of a chess grandmaster making a cunning move, “I saw it on the news. AND on the current affairs.”
Gwen had turned away at this point and was busy shuffling bottles and glasses and stifling a laugh. She spoke over her shoulder.
“I don’t think he’s here to tear your house down, Mrs. Finnegan. Are you, Carter?”
Carter shook his head emphatically. “No, ma’am. I’m just here to work awhile.”
Mrs. Finnegan gave him a final glare, then returned to her seat, at a table with a younger woman and a young boy who Carter guessed were her daughter and grandson respectively. He scanned the room for Henry, and spotted him standing near a table of middle-aged men, talking loudly and laughing. Carter approached them, and tapped Henry on the shoulder to get his attention. Henry gave him a ‘one moment’ gesture. The discussion around the table was heated, but pleasant enough. One of the men at the table had a half-empty beer glass in front of him and the rosy glow of the neatly lunchtime inebriated. He was jabbing the table pointedly with a finger and speaking loudly, and the men around him were joining in on occasion with laughter or fervent agreement.
“We were nearly fuckin’ robbed just before the siren! Bloody umpire was too busy scratchin’ his arse to pay attention. That Hopetoun shithead nearly knocked Fletch out!”
This was met with a chorus of “yeah!”s and “fuck ‘em!”s. Carter leaned in so Henry could hear him over the noise.
“Is there anything you want me to do before dinner?”
Henry waved him away.
“Nah, mate. Take an hour off. We’ll start prepping for dinner at five, so be back here by then, right?”
Carter nodded, but Henry was already reabsorbed in the conversation at the table, which had just erupted in a rousing – if slightly off-key – rendition of the Fisherman’s Creek Tigers’ club song. The other patrons stared. Some joined in. Carter took advantage of the distraction to slip out the back of the Wanderer, Gwen following close behind. Once outside, he took a deep breath. Gwen appraised him as he did so.
“So what do you think of Fisherman’s Creek now?”
There were a few shoppers wandering around. Many of them gave him strange looks as they realised he was not a familiar face. He scratched his chin thoughtfully before answering.
“It might be too early to say for sure. You seem like very intense people, for small-town country folk.”
“’Small-town country folk’?” Gwen mimicked, giving added emphasis to the last word. She put on a thick country accent. “Ah mate, ya just don’t know us that well. Come ‘round for a barbie and a few brews, mate, we’ll shoot the shit, maybe play some backyard cricket, it’ll be fuckin’ grouse.”
He laughed apologetically. It was a nice laugh, Gwen noted. Thick, and earnest.
“Yeah, wrong choice of words, I guess. You know what I mean, though. You always hear about places like these being really relaxed.”
“There’s a lot going on in Fisherman’s Creek. A lot of the people here are very… traditional.” She paused. “They get kind of defensive, and very wary of outsiders. Especially around this time.”
Carter noted a ute some way up Main Street, driving towards them quite quickly. It was white, but coated in dirt and dust. A working car. There was probably a farm or something out that way, he thought. He made a note of it, in case the pub job fell through.
“Why? What time is it? Getting close to Christmas?”
Gwen was looking at her phone, checking messages, distracted.
“No, it’s harvest time.”
She looked up at him, suddenly alert. The ute was getting closer. Carter could count a few figures inside, four or five, though the only one who could see with any clarity at the moment was a large red-headed man in the passenger seat. Beside him, Gwen had grabbed his shoulder.
“Shit, you should go inside.”
Carter took his eyes off the ute for a moment – it was nearly level with the furthest shopfronts now – and looked at her.
“Why? Who are these guys?”
She was pushing him now.
“Seriously, you should go inside. We don’t like outsiders, remember? And those guys really don’t like outsiders.”
The ute had pulled up in front of the Wanderer. Carter could see the men inside more clearly, now. In addition to the large redheaded man, there were four others, all dressed in flannels and working clothes, hands and faces smeared with dirt. As they exited the ute, the driver locked eyes with Carter, and got his work mates’ attention. The driver, a man who looked to be about the same age as Carter, with a thick, dark beard and a deep worker’s tan, walked up to where he and Gwen were standing. The other four followed, but stayed a few steps behind. The driver looked Carter up and down, then addressed Gwen, his gaze not leaving Carter’s face.
“Who’s this then?”
Gwen stepped in front of Carter.
“Leave it, Marcus. He’s the new cook and kitchen hand. He seems alright. Henry said all his references check out.”
Marcus smiled at that, but it was an alligator smile, no mirth. All tooth.
“Yeah, but Henry’s barely one of us anyway, is he? He left. And he’s never at prayer. And he doesn’t help with the harvest. So I’m sorry but what Henry says means exactly jack shit to me.”
At this, the redheaded man spoke up.
“Marcus, it’s alright.”
Marcus stepped back briskly at that, allowing the redheaded man to step past him. The man was easily half a head taller than Carter himself, who was already a tall man. He looked friendly enough, and was smiling, but Carter noted that the smile only danced around the edges of his eyes, never quite reaching it. The effect was somewhat unnerving.
“I’m sure you know by now we’re a bit protective of our little slice of paradise here at Fisherman’s Creek. I’m sorry about Marcus. We’re all family here, and we look out for each other. Marcus is something of a protective older brother.”
He grinned, and his eyes finally followed, and after a few moments Carter wasn’t sure he had been seeing things correctly in the first place. Probably just rattled by Marcus’s aggression.
The redheaded man extended a hand, and Carter took it. The grip was firm and strong.
“I’m Tobias. Tobias Kingsley. I guess you could say I’m kind of the town priest.”
Carter nodded. “I saw the church. It’s nice.”
Tobias shook his head.
“You’re kind, but it’s not. It’s in something of a state at the moment. We mostly take turns hosting our prayer meetings. That church needs a hard day’s work if it’s going to be used again.”
Carter thought it would take a lot longer than one day to clean up the tangle of weeds and cut out all the moss from the stones, but he didn’t say so.
Tobias went on. “So you’re working at the Wanderer? That’s good. Kitchen work is good, honest work, I’ve always thought. Always best for a man to work with his hands, right? I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Carter Murphy. It’s a pleasure.”
Behind Tobias, the other four men were getting restless. Marcus in particular was shifting back and forth, looking like a dog that had just been scolded by its master. He spoke up.
“Tobias, should we go inside?”
For a split second the smile left Tobias’ eyes vacant again. Just a split second. Then it was back.
“Yes, we should. I don’t know about you boys, but I am thirsty. It’s been a hard day’s work, Carter. Up before the sun, you know.”
Marcus and the others stepped inside. Gwen watched them carefully.
“No trouble tonight, alright?”
Marcus muttered something under his breath. Gwen followed them in, casting a last, worried glance at Carter and Tobias.
Tobias put a hand on Carter’s shoulder.
“It’s good to meet you, Carter. I’m sure we’ll be seeing you around town. Welcome to Fisherman’s Creek.”
He dropped his hand, leaving a dirt stain on Carter’s shirt, and moved to go inside.
“Good meeting you, Tobias. I’m sure I’ll be around a while. Maybe if you need it I can help you with the harvest?”
Tobias paused, halfway inside the Wanderer. He didn’t look back.
“Yes, maybe you will.”
With that, he stepped inside. Carter breathed again. He couldn’t shake the feeling he had just had a close encounter – like a diver suddenly coming face-to-face with a shark. The danger had passed him by, but was it because he had avoided it – or was it behind him, waiting to strike when he finally relaxed? Carter made a note to stay on his toes, at least for the first week, while he was getting settled in. He also resolved to take Gwen aside and get more information about Fisherman’s Creek. For one thing, he’d like to know what the farms around here were growing. Carter had worked at a few different farms in his travels, and he couldn’t think of a single one of them that had started harvesting in December.
It was now hours later, and dinner service was finally winding down. As Henry had predicted, it seemed like all of Fisherman’s Creek had turned out that night. Henry kept saying he’d have to start hiring a new backpacker every week, if it drove up business this much. Carter was barely keeping pace in the kitchen, and more than a few times he felt as if he was being swamped in orders. Finally, though, Henry poked his head through the door and said those magic words.
“That’s the last order. Once you’ve sent that one out, you can start cleaning up.”
There was a lot of cleaning to be done, of course, but at least it wasn’t time-sensitive. The one downside, though, was the never ending parade of people walking past the kitchen counter, peeking in at him as if he was some sideshow or zoo animal. He couldn’t shake the feeling he should be doing something more to warrant the attention. Dancing on the benches, perhaps, or juggling kitchenware. At the very least, he thought, Henry could be selling tickets. He’d make a mint.