The weather in North Queensland in summer can be stifling. In the tropical rainforest on the banks of Cassowary Creek it can be unbearable. This day was no exception.
Cassowary Creek settlement is one of those way-stations that just seem to spring up beside the rough track that does service as the main road to the Cape. Comprising just a pub, a garage, and a couple of shacks on metal posts to guard against the ever-present termites, the township is a quiet place as a rule. And Cassowary Creek is actually a river but over a cold beer some wag in long forgotten days had called it a creek, a map maker who had been holding up the bar had committed the name to posterity, and Cassowary Creek it remained.
And so, travellers heading north for the first time can be excused for feeling angry with their Government when they find the main road cut unexpectedly by a rather large river that requires their vehicles to be towed by Old Perce and his tractor across the only ford in the district. At fifty dollars a time, Perce does all right for himself in the tourist season, and Martha, who owns the pub, does very well from Perce and his thirsty, unhappy travellers too.
Bill Reynolds was one of these tired, petulant souls. He and his wife, Sheila, had set out from Cairns just that morning. He’d planned to reach Cooktown on the first day and then the Cape next evening. Bill was a keen fisherman and crab-potter, and, having stopped on several occasions to wet a line in some of the many inlets north of Cairns was now attempting to make up for lost time. But Cassowary Creek (which was not a creek) intervened. The day was well advanced when Bill and Sheila finally made it to Martha’s pub to down a few coldies. Bill was anything but happy.
“I’d have thought twice about coming to this godforsaken waterhole if I’d known what it would be like!” he snapped at his host. “Bloody bulldust up to the axle for half the trip, and flies, bloody flies in my eyes and down my throat. I can’t even breathe for the miserable buggers!”
He took a large swallow of his beer.
“We’ll have to stay here for the night. That’ll put us behind to blazes,” he snapped to his long suffering partner.
“That’ll be all right, Bill,” Sheila said, “don’t worry about it.”
“I’ve got to be back in Sydney on Tuesday,” Bill argued. “There’s that big contract to sign. These developers won’t hang around if I’m not there. That sort of business is the reason we can go on these vacations. That signature on Tuesday alone is worth a cool five million.” He looked around, satisfied that the locals had heard all he’d said.
“Hey, missus!” he addressed the publican. “We’ll need a room for the night. What have you got?”
“There’s just the one left,” Martha replied. Perce smiled into his drink. Martha only ever had one room. “You and your wife can have it for a hundred and fifty bucks. Breakfast’s extra!”
“A hundred and fifty?” Bill squealed. “That’s bloody robbery! This isn’t the Gold Coast, damn it!”
“Take it or leave it, that’s the tariff,” Martha replied, and wiped the bar with the cloth she wore around her neck. “That’s in advance!”
“We’ll sleep in the flamin’ tent!” Bill growled. “I’m being had for a sucker here.” Sheila tugged at his sleeve.
“Don’t, woman!” he snapped. “That’s my last word.”
Perce swallowed and cleared his throat. “Ahm, you might need to think about old Charlie before you go tenting it.”
“Who in the hell is Charlie?” Bill asked. He studied Perce from head to toe. His survey took little time as Perce was only five feet tall and 100 pounds, wringing wet.
“Charlie’s our resident crocodile,” Perce replied. “He’s a big sod – about sixteen feet, I reckon.”
“Twenty feet, easily,” Martha chipped in. “He’s been known to wander around nearby some nights. ‘Course, you can take the risk or you can drive on to Saffron Gully. That’s a nice little town. It’s got two pubs, and a police station, even. It’s only six and a half hours away.”
“Another six and a half hours?” Sheila gasped. “No, I’m staying here tonight, Bill.”
“Well, okay then,” Bill mumbled into his beer.
“That’ll be a hundred and fifty, then,” Martha said, and stuck out her hand for the money.
Bill continued to moan as he struggled with their suitcases up the winding stairs at the rear of the pub. He cursed the hot, sticky weather, slapped at the persistent flies, and complained unendingly at the way he had been treated. Slinging a towel around his neck and grabbing his toiletries bag, Bill stomped off to have a long, cold shower. Sheila slumped on the bed and wondered anew why she had thought she had got such a bargain when she married Bill.
When her husband returned, cursing that the water was warm and was not fresh, she attempted to tune the flow of monotonous complaints out.
“Can you believe it?” Bill growled. “They pump the bloody water direct from the river! It’s not even purified. And it stinks!”
“Well, maybe Charlie’s piddled in it!” Sheila snapped, and then bit her tongue as Bill broke into his song about how ungrateful she was, how he’d rescued her from waiting at tables, how her million dollar home on the northern shores of Sydney Harbour was the result of his clever business skills, and on and on until Sheila closed the door and went off to explore the neighbourhood.
Perce was readying his line for a spell of fishing when Sheila stepped out into the late afternoon sun. She walked over to him and watched him dig out a rod.
“Ever do any fishing, missus?” Perce asked.
“I never do any good,” she said. “I usually just watch Bill.”
“I’ve got a spare rod if you wanna try,” Perce said.
“You know, I really think I would like that.” She smiled at the old man who told Martha some time later that he felt all funny in his guts when he’d received that smile.
Without a word the old man baited a fresh hook. Having slapped on some insect lotion to ward off the mosquitoes and the flies, the two acquaintances headed for the river. The sun had lowered to touch the tips of the distant ranges, and a wisp of cooler air began to take away some of the sting of the sun’s rays.
“We’d better push through this scrub just along here,” Perce said. “That clear spot is where Charlie likes to lie.”
“I’d really like to see the famous Charlie,” Sheila said.
“No, you wouldn’t, missus. With all due respects, you don’t want to meet Charlie. Crocodiles is very fast, you know. An’ Charlie’s one of the fastest. I seen him from a boat once. He just flicked that massive tail and lurched out of the water so fast that a wild pig he was after had no chance. Dragged under water and drowned, he was. Dead in seconds, God’s truth. Nah, we’ll stay right away from that part of the river. We should stay below the ford, out of Charlie’s way, but the fishin’s not so good. We’ll have to push through the scrub, an’ it’ll be hard goin’, but I want to put the best part of a quarter of a mile from Charlie’s place before I go fishin’.”
“Why don’t you shoot Charlie if he’s such a dangerous beast?” Sheila asked, at which Perce shuddered.
“What kill the old bastard … erm, beggin’ your pardon? Charlie’s been here since before the white man. He doesn’t do any harm as long as we live by his rules. Kill Charlie? Never!” Without further argument the two anglers pushed through the thick scrub and soon had their lines in the water where Perce began teaching Sheila how to catch barramundi.
“Barra’s not an easy fish to catch,” Perce was saying. “But he’s a bit stupid, that’s all. You just got to float the bait towards him. Easy and slow. There you go. You’ve got a nice hold on that rod. Easy, relaxed. That’s the secret. There! You’ve got one. Hold him firm now. He’ll try to get into that old dead timber in the river. That’s it. Easy! Watch out! Damn. He’s thrown the hook. Never mind! We’ll have another go.” Sheila had never experienced such a thrill and, under Perce’s guidance, she was soon catching fish.
It was a jubilant young woman who dashed up the stairs and into the room where her husband was snoring.
“Up, up, sleepy head! I’ve caught our dinner. Two lovely barramundi that Martha’s cooking right now for us. Oh, that was fun. I went fishing with Perce. He’s such a dear old chap.”
An ominous silence was his response. Then, “You went fishing with a total stranger! Without me? What were you thinking of?”
After five minutes of recrimination, Sheila could stand it no longer and simply walked out the door. Bill pulled on his sandshoes and followed soon after. He was not pleased to find that his wife was the toast of the pub, telling and re-telling how she had caught her fish. Perce sat quietly nearby, affirming and re-affirming that she was, without doubt, one of the world’s greatest anglers. When Bill was asked to comment on his wife’s cleverness, he snarled that he much preferred casting his crab pots. “Catching crabs is a sport that requires real skill,” he boasted, but only Perce was listening.
“You gotta remember not to throw your pots in above the ford. That’s Charlie’s territory. Below the ford you’ll be okay.”
But Bill just snorted something about a bloody phantom called Charlie and Perce said no more. Bill continued drinking, and drinking, and drinking, until he left the pub without a word.
Sheila sought him out as the pub was closing, but he was nowhere to be seen. She checked their car, the bathroom and the shower, but he was nowhere in sight. “Well, bugger him!” she said to herself. “This is my night and he’s not going to spoil it!” She turned on her heel, climbed the stairs and went to bed.
Down by the river on a sandbank above the ford, Charlie retched and coughed up a sandshoe.