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  • Ken Hay

Short Story - THE OBSERVER


Long, low swells rose lazily out of the Indian Ocean, piling up on themselves until their teetering tips cascaded forward and down their advances faces. First rays of sunlight lanced over the coastal heath and shimmered in the dancing foam. The waves hit the beach with a thud, hissed across the golden sand, then receded. He lay on the sand under a low bush watching, through battered binoculars, the harbour entrance to the north. Keen fishermen departed in their sundry boats heading, mainly, for Five Mile Reef. An occasional boat attended upon the cray pot floats close in-shore, each pulling the permitted two pots, rebaiting and departing with or without reward for their efforts. He stiffened when he saw the red runabout clear the harbour mouth and head south toward the floats beneath his vantage point. Ten floats were scattered over the hidden reef. Each bore the distinctive distinguishing marks identifying the owner. Beneath each float a line led down to a pot on the reef. The lone male in the red runabout first pulled two pots with red floats. He then appeared to busy himself with the outboard motor as another boat, nearby, finished its task and departed. He then pulled the other eight pots. “You rotten, thieving bastard!” the observer on the hill muttered to himself. As he watched the crime committed. A sardonic grin crossed his face when the thief pulled the two yellow pots. “You’re too late today, bastard. I was out there before dawn to pull my two.” He stood up and walked back to his ute parked behind the sand hill. Later in the day the observer drove to a lonely backwater. For several hours he waded among the shallow pools. He carried a thin steel rod, hooked over at one end, and with htis he gently rolled over submerged rocks as he went along. He also carried a white, plastic, twenty litre bucket with a lid and a home-made net made of old panty-hose and fencing wire. Twice, he used the net to scoop from the shallow water and deposit the contents into the bucket. He returned to his vehicle, pushed the lid firmly onto the bucket, put it in the back and drove home. He had caught two legal-sized crayfish that morning. Two he had cooked and placed into the freezer; the other two he had placed into a bucket of cold, fresh water in his workshop. Now they were dead but retained their natural colour. He fitted a new blade into a Stanley trimmer, covered his workbench with a thick layer of old newspaper and placed both the crayfish upon it. He began on the first crustacean by very carefully incising the entire circumference of the membrane that joined the carapace to the tail. Separating the two parts he painstakingly removed all the flesh from the tail – placing it into a Tupperware container as he went. He then removed the contents of the head leaving it in a pile on the newspaper.. The second crayfish he treated the same way. The sun was setting now and he turned on the lights in the workshop, took a can of beer from the fridge and drank it before proceeding. He fixed both tails in the engineer’s vice, the jaws very gently grasping the shell, open end upward, tightly enough only to prevent them falling. He removed the lid from the white plastic bucket and used the hooked, steel rod to manoeuvre each of the two objects from the bucket into one each of the shells. It took time and care; twice one of the objects fell to the floor necessitating careful retrieval. Eventually he succeeded. In the next step placed four small spots of superglue around the edges of each caraparce and placed it back into its natural position on the tail. He was very careful to keep his hands clear of the tails. Done, he placed both re-assembled crayfish into another bucket containing sea water, returned to the house and went to bed. Long before dawn he was at sea to pull his two craypots with the yellow floats. There were two legal sized crayfish in each. He placed them into a bucket of sea water, rebaited the pots and gingerly placed one of the treated crayfish into each. He returned each of the pots carefully to the water, gently lowered them to the bottom and went home. Light, summer rain during the night had made the dune sand smell damp and musty in his nostrils as the morning sun cleared the ranges behind him. The red runabout came from the harbour and the driver proceeded to pull all ten pots. The pots with yellow floats were last. The observer in dunes finely focussed his binoculars and watched the first of his pots dragged up and balanced on the gunwale. He saw the hand reach inside and take the dead crayfish. Try as he might, he could not discern the facial expression of the thief but he did see the hands roughly tear the crayfish apart, then the sudden backward lurch and the backward fall into the water. The shells were reflexly flung away from the boat and the craypot fell back into the water and sank.The thief floundered about in the water, appearing to violently fling something off his left hand. He wallowed back to the boat and managed to haul his torso onto the gunwale. He paused to rest then convulsed and crashed back into the water. He floated, motionless , face down, alongside the boat until small waves separated them. The gentle, easterly breeze pushed them seaward.“Got you! You thieving bastard!”, the observer muttered to himself as stood and turned to walk back to his ute. In the pub that evening the observer joined in the discussion about the bloke found dead in the ocean. Consensus was he had had a heart attack and fallen from the boat. The police announced there were no suspicious circumstances. Someone bold dared to state, “Good riddance. We might be able to bring in a few crays now.” Others nodded sagely and sipped at their beers. In his boat, next morning, the observer took one live cayfish from the yellow floated pot and placed it in a bucket of sea water. Wearing heavy vinyl gloves he carefully took the shell of the dead crayfish from the pot, leaned over the side and submerged it before gently breaking the superglue seals and separated head from tail. A small octopus, its anger demonstrated by brilliant blue rings around its body and tentacles, darted from the shell and swam swiftly to the bottom.