'Mangrove Jack' McCracken

Short Stories Mar 17, 2022

The surface of the water is not quite glass, but damned close. He idles the small outboard motor and lets the aluminium dinghy run aground against one of the numerous mangrove islands offshore from Queensland’s Turkey Beach. Most days, seventy-two year old “Mangrove Jack” McCracken will be found in his 12 foot tinny, puttering somewhere around the creeks and waterways south of Gladstone. A solitary man, he eschews socializing although he’s polite when the situation demands. Stepping into the shallows amongst twisted mangrove roots, there’s a brief sting of saltwater against his ulcerated leg, followed by the welcoming coolness of the ocean to mid-calf depth.

Apart from several seabirds disturbed by his arrival in their domain, it is tranquil; the closest human being is four kilometres over his shoulder in the “quintessentially sleepy fishing village” of Turkey Beach, population 182. Securing the tinny to a mangrove tree, Jack wades purposefully out amongst the roots to almost waist depth, locates a marker, then draws up the rope and its payload. Reaching for the crab dilly-pot, his mind wanders, as it does frequently, from his anonymity in the tropics of Queensland to the eastern suburbs of Sydney.

In the heady days of the 1980s and 90s, Jack McCracken was an A-lister on the Sydney social scene having made a motza with his real estate businesses, development projects and franchises. Gifted with a quick tongue and gregarious nature, Jack’s empire flourished through a combination of shrewd investments, mates in Council Planning departments, and good old-fashioned graft. Winks and nods and appropriate contacts were currency.

While superheroes don cloaks of invincibility, Jack‘s reality shield was his insouciance towards tawdry or manipulative behaviour. External warning cues for inappropriateness were blocked or cleverly deflected. In the absence of warning blips on his moral and ethical radar, Jack McCracken perceived his actions as “all good, keep going.” Insouciance is a powerful weapon; some receive the weapon at conception when it is imprinted into the architecture of their brain, others acquire it through nurture and evolution. A few, like Jack, consciously acquire or lay down that shield to conveniently facilitate their short-term strategies. The illegitimate son of a Catholic priest defrocked months before his birth in 1950, Jack had to learn to think quickly, become street-smart, learn and survive on the soles of his feet. The silver-lining of Jack’s insouciance, was that his actions were always self-justified. The trampling of others was regrettable, yet necessary collateral damage.

Each of his three progressively younger wives had graced the social pages of the Wentworth Courier at various times. The Sydney Morning Herald had, on several occasions, reported social events and political fundraisers held in their Point Piper mansion. A wry smile creases Jack’s leathery face as he visualizes his current home – the unpainted fibro beach shack at Turkey Beach complete with a rusting, asthmatic tractor for launching his boat. The luxury European vehicles and hectic lifestyle all proved transitory; excised from his life through divorces, business treachery and overreach, and a penchant for excess whisky to mask the rigours of each business day.

Yes, this crabpot feels heavy. It will be another day of liberation.

It was the searing pain in his arm and shoulder, shortness of breath, and ultimate collapse, which had been his “road to Damascus” moment in 2005. The near fatal heart attack and subsequent multiple by-pass operation veered him joltingly onto an exit lane from the fast-life, thrust him closer to his adult daughter, Celeste. They had a sunny five years getting to know each other after his absence during her lifetime. Incrementally, they grew to like and genuinely love each other. She injected warmth and care and sparkle into her father’s frail shell; Celeste recognised the depth of his fall and the impact it had on his mental health. She drip-fed him with self-belief. But then came her own diagnosis. The ineffective treatment. Her constant nausea. The sequins on her impeccable life began to disassemble, and all too quickly his beautiful daughter, the only person who shone light into his life, collapsed to the earth as a crumpled dress and was gone.

Jack surveys the four magnificent mudcrabs in the dilly-pot, blue-green shells glistening. They wriggle frantically and wave huge threatening claws at him.

His estranged son had briefly attended Celeste’s cremation but left without speaking to him. Jack had desperately sought absolution and redemption for having abandoned his only son during his formative years. He didn’t have the opportunity to let his son know of his plan to relocate, seek a simpler life, go off the grid. His son would probably have cared little, anyway, such was his contempt. He simply didn’t recognize Jack as a father figure, and sought no contact with a stranger whose corporate values he despised.

Opening the neck of the crab trap, Jack glances around furtively, upends the pot, shakes it vigorously and observes the splash of these beautiful crustaceans as they’re freed. They glide gracefully downwards to the welcoming muddy bottom and are soon gone, secreted away into the anonymity of the mangrove roots. He smiles at his daily activities. Jack doesn’t own any crab traps, these pots belong to others. It is an act of self-liberation as much as an act of liberation.

“You’ve won the lottery you dopey buggers, but stay alert,” he mutters in a hectoring tone. “Life’s just a short dance. A dance around numerous traps. Take it from someone who knows.”


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