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The Welshman of Madrid

‘I’m sure you’ve noticed, but we eat late in Madrid.’ The Welshman’s words came back to me as we crossed Gran Via at around eight o’clock in the evening. We were on our way to meet him for drinks, dinner and what we hoped would be a sampling of the local nightlife. I was already starving.

I knew of the city’s tendencies towards the nocturnal: families with small children out well into the early hours, pre-dinner drinks unheard of before eight, and dancing before two a terrible faux pas. Indeed, I’d even heard it rumoured that the statues of the gothic kings lining the Plaza de Oriente come alive at night, if only to stretch their legs. But long days spent lingering at the Prado or walking to Las Ventas had so far prevented us from staying out past eleven. I was ready for bed.

The gothic kings that line the plaza.

The gothic kings that line the plaza.

On the southern side of Plaza Mayor we found the apartment of the Welshman, decorated in elegant homage to his first and greatest afición: el mundo del toros, the world of the bulls. Prints from the 19th-century bullfighting magazine La Lidia, colourfully depicting scenes of near-fatal confrontation, hung on every wall of his salon, while in one dimly-lit corner, conspicuously out of sight, were two much less colourful, though, in my eyes, far more valuable, prints from Goya’s La Tauromaquia. Nearing eighty, the Welshman has been living the life of an expatriate in Spain since the early 1960s. And what a life it seemed to be.

To say I remembered much of dinner would be an overstatement. The Welshman, gifted with stories and generous with wine, kept us happily intoxicated on both. It wasn’t long before I transitioned to water purely to keep things straight in my head for he spoke with such authority across a broad range of topics that it became difficult to tell where history ended and his own personal history began. I have it on good authority that our 78 year-old friend served under General Montgomery, possibly after or at the end of or near the end of the Second World War where, at around six years of age, he may or may not have been involved with the enigma machine, but he most certainly did install the first computer in a commercial environment and, somewhere along the way—probably at a bull ring in Spain—met Orson Welles.

What is clear in my head is his third (or perhaps fourth or fifth) afición, which was confessed to us at our last stop for the night, a quiet little cervezeria, what he described as “a working man’s bar”. ‘So-and-so frequents the posh place across the street,’ he said, ‘but the coffee here is so much better: fuerte, and cheaper.’ It resembled an American roadside diner in Spanish translation. Long and narrow with a counter running the length of it, the mustards and ketchups had been replaced with bowls of complimentary tapas and legs of dried jamón hanging from the ceiling. After pouring us a round of vino tinto, the bartender returned to the back of the bar to hang off the coffee machine and watch a Spanish-dubbed version of From Dusk till Dawn. As the discernible curves of Salma Hayek slid across the screen, the Welshman, now frequently lapsing into Spanish himself, happily discussed with us the sex appeal of Frida Kahlo before segueing on to Kate Moss and his other (sixth? seventh?) afición: fashion. ‘I love fashion. I just love fashion,’ he said. ‘I don’t see the shows as much as I used to, but I love what the young women are wearing these days. I’m sure you’ve seen them wearing the tights beneath their short shorts?’

By three, the roller doors were being brought down around us, despite requests from the Welshman for one more. ‘Una mas, por favor!’ We bade farewell amidst declarations of eternal friendship and friendly jabs at one another’s rugby teams. ‘Fuck Australia!’ the Welshman yelled out patriotically from across the street, unstable on his feet but arms raised victoriously above his head.

Los aficionados

Los aficionados en Bodega Guzman, Cordoba

Los aficionados en Bodega Guzman, Cordoba

Gone Crayfishin’

I’m hanging over the side of a fifty-foot fishing boat hurling the contents of my stomach into the sea. It’s the third time I’ve thrown up in the last two hours and, with the full brunt of the southern ocean pummelling our side and drenching my frame, it’s the most spectacular instance yet. As we speed at full clip towards our next cray pot, I spare a thought, momentarily, for the boat and its freshly acquired coat of vomit, making the mistake of turning my head to check as another spasm courses through me. The ribbon of bile that escapes my mouth is like crepe paper in the wind and I watch in horror as it’s caught and splattered across the back deck. My shame and the layer of spittle coating my mouth are washed away with the next onslaught as I realise that little can endure against the destructive force of the ocean. It’s unnatural for a human to attempt to contend with it. I coddle my ego with the certain belief that humans have been vomiting off the sides of boats for as long as they’ve been sailing them.

Leaving port at three that morning, prehistory was not far from mind. Under the cover of what could only be described as a primordial blackness we sped west to be greeted by an uncertain world. White crests caught in the net of our floodlight were revealed on approach to be the wings of disturbed seagulls. Constellations on the horizon morphed into luminescent buoys off the starboard bow as they, too, drew nearer. It was a reckless endeavour, or would have felt as such were it not for the normalising squawks of FM radio and the sight of my skipper, Tom, checking his Facebook page and looking up, occasionally, to steer us out of the path of another fisherman’s buoys.

Robbie (right) waits for Tom's command to drop the empty cray pot over the side. Tom is using the boat's sonar to determine where on the ocean floor they should set the pot.

Robbie (right) waits for Tom’s command to drop the empty cray pot over the side. Tom is using the boat’s sonar to determine where on the ocean floor they should set the pot.

At 23 years of age, Tom is serving his eighth season at sea, and while I now cling, green-gilled, to the boat’s port side, he navigates the swell and the deck and his first-mate, Robbie, with ease. Tom and Robbie are cray fishermen and members of that unnatural species for whom overcoming the listing and pitching is only a matter of stride. In their home town of Port MacDonnell, with it’s 62-strong cray fishing fleet (the “largest in Australia,” the sign at the town’s entrance assures me) they’re possibly not a rarity. A port since 1860, Port MacDonnell is rich in maritime history and was considered, for a time, to be the second busiest port in South Australia. Located along a particularly dangerous stretch of coast its history and coastline are littered with shipwrecks and disappeared vessels, but it was the introduction of a railway, rather than, you know, the threat of death that saw the demise of the town’s shipping industry. Now the waters belong solely to the fishermen. And the waters are as rough as ever.

My own love affair with the sea continues to erode as I watch the sun reeled upwards from its watery depths. Everything now exists for me on a spectrum ranging from mildly soothing to vomit-inducing. The defrosting salmon and barracuda heads that Robbie is hacking up for bait bring on the dry-retching. As another pot of crays is pulled up over the side, the stench, which summons up an image of decaying seals, sees me doubled over the railing again. Unable to hold my own—or my stomach—I take to the cabin to sleep it off.

We return to port with a hefty day’s catch: 165 crays. The crays are offloaded, weighed and then driven to the other side of the car park where a man sits in a white van with the words “Southern United Seafood” painted across its side. His is not the only truck awaiting the return of the fleet, but it is the only one doing business. With a market price averaging $74 per kilogram the produce goes to whoever’s paying the most and today it’s him. At 140 odd kilos the boys have brought in around $10,000. Given how much I make in a day I’m beginning to feel sick all over again.

Angry Kraken

The Town at the Edge of the World

We were preparing to welcome in the New Year with the residents of a small fishing town when word spread that a heart and lungs had washed ashore at Orwell Rocks. The news, which saw a guest called away to confirm that the remains didn’t belong to a sheep, passed with a flutter beneath the striped marquee before being drowned out by the sounds of Paul Kelly’s Dumb Things. For the folk of Port MacDonnell, who had shown up to a three-course community dinner lugging eskies of BYO booze, this was nothing to get their knickers-in-a-knot over.

Port MacDonnell sits on the South Australian coast, a town at the edge of the world. A couple of main streets recognisable as suburbia—a few McMansions, manicured lawns, a boat in every second driveway—line the coast, the bitumen an uneasy demarcation between them and the unrelenting southern seas. The 17-knot winds and storms off the Antarctic that salt the lawns and hedges in sand are a daily reminder for the six-hundred-odd residents that life here is conditional.

You’re at home here, but you’re never quite at ease.

The Town at the Edge of the World

A heart and lungs wouldn’t be the first mystery to wash ashore in Port MacDonnell. In 1943, a cray fisherman by the name of Clarrie Hammond stumbled upon a German sea mine that had come in with the last high tide. It was one of about nine German mines to come ashore along the South Australian coast, drifters from a minefield laid in our southern waters by German raiders during WWII. In an unfortunate incident in the coastal town of Beachport, two members of an REMS (Rendering Mines Safe) team lost their lives when the mine they were attempting to diffuse was picked up by a wave and exploded on the beach. They are believed to be the first casualties of WWII to have died on Australian soil. Port MacDonnell’s mine now sits in a position of pride out the front of Custom’s House—the venue for the New Year’s Eve celebrations—invisible during the festivities behind the port-a-potties and the billowing tides of the marquee walls.

Dinner itself was a quaint affair more akin to a neighbourhood shindig than any ritzy city celebration. Over mains, which we lined up for and served ourselves, a guest at our table was shocked to learn that a New Year’s Eve dinner in our inner-city suburb was going for $190-a-head. In contrast, tickets to the dinner at Custom’s House sold for a humble $35. “And it probably wouldn’t be as good as this,” she punctuated with a fork of mashed potato and peas. “Nothing beats a good old-fashioned roast”. Dinner was interrupted at that point by the opening lines of Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road as manicured nails and weathered hands alike put down their forks and knives to keep time. A woman in her 70s, proving that life by the sea does indeed keep you fit, stood up to wrap one leg around a marquee support post and pole-danced in time with the music. The song ended to thunderous applause and the insistent demand: “Play it again!”

Walking home, a street back from Custom’s House, we discovered a rowdier New Year’s welcome spilling out of the old Victoria Hotel. Of the one-hundred-and-twenty residents celebrating the New Year at Custom’s House, all but two were sea-changers. The Victoria Hotel is a favourite among Port Mac’s other major demographic, the cray fishermen, for whom weekends do not exist during the summer fishing season and one night of the week is indistinguishable from the next. As we passed by a group that had taken to celebrating on the footpath, a fisherman complimented my “beautiful hands”, while his friend politely, if drunkenly, warned me against tripping over the “feetless” boots standing by themselves in the middle of our path.

Arriving home, one hour into the New Year, we got the news: the innards had not belonged to a human after all. It says something about the town—and perhaps about us—that this seemed like good news and bad news all at once.

Concept Art

Illustration

Character Design

Storyboards

PAYLOAD, storyboard animatic

 

REG MAKES CONTACT short film, Screen Australia Hot Shots Program

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SKIN short film, Screen Australia Springboard Program

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Travel Photography