Extract – Sleepless in Stringybark Bay

Article | Issue: Sep 2023

Susan Duncan is back with her new book, Sleepless in Stringybark Bay. Wrapped in the colourful culture of a boat-access-only community, it celebrates having a go at any age, revels in the magic of the bush and explores the fragility of relationships, old and young.

Read on for an extract.


When five couples pool their resources to live in a house located where a turquoise lagoon meets the sea, the quirky little offshore community of Cook’s Basin is shocked. How will ten people – one in a wheelchair and one with a hauntingly familiar face – survive where the only way in or out is by boat?

When a member of the household is found floating face down in the bay, the police insist the death was accidental but the bizarre circumstances have locals scratching their heads.
Former journalist turned café owner Kate Jackson is curious to discover why a group of retirees in their late seventies would choose such an isolated location. Then a throw-away line in an old magazine story leads to shocking revelations.
Wrapped in the colourful culture of a boat-access-only community, Sleepless in Stringybark Bay celebrates having a go at any age, revels in the magic of the bush and explores the fragility of relationships, old and young.



Walking in the shallows of the bay, Ettie Brookbank wriggled her toes in the cool sand, sidestepped a starfish and raised her eyes to delight in the sight of frothy pink clouds skittering along the horizon. Blessed, she thought, smiling inwardly. I am blessed. To be sure her joy didn’t inflame those capricious gods who hid around corners, determined to pounce on a person’s good fortune and send it crashing to the ground, she reached to touch the timber piles supporting the Briny Café. The haphazard construction of timber silvered by the sea and sun, perched on oyster-encrusted pylons, had a slightly cartoonish lean towards the east, courtesy of the August westerlies which, in a big blow, could reduce the lot to toothpicks. ‘Touch wood,’ she said aloud. Then she laughed. Science trumped superstition. Hadn’t she heard it repeated like a mantra for the current age? Time to move into the twenty-first century, Ettie, she told herself.

It was an hour before opening. Time to mise en place, as her beloved Marcus, a retired chef, would say. Get everything in order before unlocking the doors for the first hordes of hungover tradies to stampede inside for a caffeine fix. Youth, she thought, without envy. She wouldn’t swap places with them for a small fortune. Or even a large one. At fifty-five, she had never been happier in her life. A good man to lie alongside at night. A clever and committed business partner, Kate Jackson, to steer the Briny Café from loss to profit. A community of like-minded eccentrics with an unshakeable belief that kindness had the power to pummel evil into oblivion. Replete, she thought, that’s how she felt. She gathered her voluminous tie-dyed skirts, stepped from the shallows and clambered up the slippery seawall to the Square, the shabby offshore community hub and drop-off point for the local ferry where celebrations, funerals, protests, environmental campaigns or business deals sealed with a handshake took place at scarred picnic tables shaded by tired casuarinas.

‘Did you see what Glenn’s up to, Ettie?’ ‘Sam! Lord, you gave me a fright.’

‘Well, if you weren’t so caught up in those dreams that are makin’ your face all mushy and rosy, you would have seen Glenn’s punt weighed down with goods and chattels headed for the resurrected sandstone shack at the end of Stringybark Bay with the most expensive jetty in Cook’s Basin – four hundred thousand dollars according to the grapevine that’s more reliable than a newspaper. Reckon the new owners will live like kings until they check out for the next destination, wherever that might be since not even Kate – brilliant journalist that she was before switching from print to pies – has interviewed anyone who’s made the return trip.’

‘Speaking of pies, I’d best get to work or I’ll never catch up.’

‘Kate’s ahead of you. Said she might as well get started instead of lyin’ awake thinkin’ about it while the bub played World Cup soccer against her ribs.’

‘Not long to go now. You and Kate will make wonderful parents.

And I’ll enjoy having a baby around the café,’ Ettie said.

Sam shook his head: ‘While I’m fully aware of the importance of a decent meal and a sublime cup of coffee, this little sailor is destined for the gleaming deck of the Mary Kay. Rocked by the gentle pulse of the sea under the hull and eyes open to the glory of nature from day one.’

Ettie sighed with a hint of resignation. ‘Ah, Sam, you and your dreams . . .’

He raised his eyebrows at her. ‘And aren’t we both living proof that after the storm there’s always another sunrise, heralding a day filled with glorious potential?’

Ettie laughed and made a gagging gesture.

A voice rang out from the deck of the Briny Café: ‘You two going to chat all day? There’s work to be done. And Sam, Jimmy just called to say he can see you wasting time from the jetty while he and Longfellow are waiting to be picked up.’

Sam turned to salute the rounded figure of Kate, standing in a shaft of golden sunshine. ‘Gettin’ bossier and bossier, like she’s practising her moves for motherhood.’

‘Here’s your coffee,’ Kate said, coming over to hand him a giant reusable mug. Standing on tiptoes _ Sam was a shade over six foot two – she planted a kiss on his cheek.

He smiled his thanks. ‘See you for brekkie in a couple of hours,’ he said. He was a man overloaded with good fortune, he knew, and he had the good sense to recognise the fact.

Sam strolled the short distance along the seafront from the Square to Cargo Wharf, where his cherished, canary yellow working barge, the Mary Kay, was securely tied to bollards. He checked the landscaping material lined up on the deck in massive white bulka bags, ready for delivery to the new house in Stringybark Bay, kicking the sides to test their stability. Even on a dead calm morning, the wake of a passing stink boat could shift the balance, placing man and vessel in jeopardy. Satisfied, he untied, stepped on board, made his way to the wheelhouse and turned the key. The engine thrummed, deep-throated and guttural. He spun the helm with a single finger and headed east at a steady pace, towards Cutter Island, a mound of earth, rock and towering spotted gums rising out of the sea and dotted with a chaotic collection of boatsheds and houses of every conceivable architectural style, depending on the often fluctuating financial circumstances of the owners.

On the far shore, Sam could see young Jimmy, his first mate, pacing restlessly, his ever-patient black-and-white border collie, Longfellow, by his side. Around him, the residents of Cook’s Basin were clambering into their tinnies for the commute from their island homes to the mainland and the beginning of the working week. A challenge on days when the wind whipped the sea into a bucking roil or the rain came down in iron sheets, but even a veiled hint that a bridge to the mainland might be handy someday would see locals lining up to pack your bags and boot you in the direction of suburbia.

A few early starters waved sleepily as they passed. Sam raised a hand in response, slowed his speed. Some days were too perfect to rush, he thought, as the sun flecked the bay with shards like broken glass, dusting treetops with gold. He breathed deeply, the tang of salt air touching his lips like wine and travelling deep into his lungs. Although his preferred beverage, if he were asked to name it, was a frigidly cold ale.

‘Where ya bin, Sam?’ shouted Jimmy as soon as the Mary Kay glided into earshot. His purple shorts and magenta T-shirt surpassed the sunlight for brilliance.

The barge drifted alongside the weathered pontoon at the foot of the forty-two steps leading to the house where Sam had lived before he and Kate hooked up permanently and he shifted into her newly renovated home in Oyster Bay.

Jimmy, bending to check Sam’s docking skills, gave a low whistle. ‘Couldn’t even fit me finger in the gap without riskin’ losing it.’

‘I’m a genius, mate,’ Sam agreed, ‘no doubt about it. Now you and the mutt get on board quick smart so we can offload and be back in time for a slap-up feed at the Briny.’

‘Ya shoulda told me earlier. Me mum’s just made me eat me Weet-Bix.’

‘How many this morning? The usual twenty-two?’

Jimmy, laughing, jumped aboard, followed by his furry companion. ‘You’re a card, Sam. Ya know it’s always 20.’

‘That’s okay then,’ Sam said, steering the barge in a tight circle, checking her matronly beam was clear of the pontoon before deftly steering clear of a flotilla of yachts rarely freed from their moorings. ‘Plenty of room left for a mushroom omelette and one of Ettie’s famous raspberry muffins.’

Jimmy frowned, absent-mindedly rubbed Longfellow’s silky black ear as he considered the options. Eventually, he said: ‘Skip the mushrooms; I’ll have eggs and bacon, and if I can’t cop the lot, Longfella’ll help me out.’

‘Done deal!’ Sam said, ruffling the boy’s carrot hair, instantly regretting the gesture. He wiped a glug of gel on the sides of his navy shorts.

In the wheelhouse, the man and the boy were silent. They passed sleepy bays, large bites out of the shoreline: Oyster, Blue Swimmer, Kingfish, all stirring under the first fingers of sunlight. ‘Stringybark’s next,’ Jimmy announced, as if Sam might need reminding.

The barge, handcrafted from seasoned spotted gum, cypress pine, huon and jarrah as tough as iron, slipped smoothly towards its desti- nation. Sam checked his watch and the anxiety that conjoined with Jimmy’s restless feet rocketed to the surface. ‘Are we late, Sam? We gunna have to pay hell?’

Sam gave the boy a reassuring smile. ‘All good, Jimmy. Why wouldn’t we be with a first-class first mate like you on board?’

The boy’s frown eased.

Sam remembered the day Jimmy’s mother told him a doctor had insisted her only child would need medication to tie down his feet and focus his thoughts if he were to function satisfactorily in the wider world. Sam had disagreed; pinning down a golden spirit like Jimmy’s would be an act of ignorant savagery, he told her. Time had proved him right, although there’d been some stellar bumps along the way. In any other environment, they might have damaged the kid beyond repair, but in Cook’s Basin, people took care of each other in ways so subtle they were mostly unseen and therefore bypassed debts of gratitude, which in turn left everyone on an equal footing.

Mind you, he thought, Amelia’s prison sentence – her quest to build a nest egg for Jimmy having led her to rort social service payments – had left the kid vulnerable. Sam had moved Jimmy into his house and employed him as a deckhand to keep him out of trouble till his mum was released. Now he thought the Mary Kay would be a dull and dreary old girl without energetic Jimmy in his equally energetic clothes, and the gentle mutt curled in his basket in the wheelhouse. ‘Destination in sight. Jimmy, standby to tie up at that spiffy new jetty,’ Sam ordered.

‘Wait – show me your hands first.’ Jimmy held them out obediently.

‘Right, well if the new owner offers to shake your mitt, you’re good to go. Okay, hop to it.’

The kid bolted from the wheelhouse, spindly legs and arms wheeling, and grabbed a stern line. He stood straight-backed, chin thrust forward, a sailor ready for royal inspection – aside from some muted toe-tapping.

Ahead, a silvery tangle of mangroves hovered over a turquoise lagoon embraced by a haphazard ring of boulders, a sandy beach. ‘Bloody magic,’ Sam whispered, trying and failing to suppress a twinge of envy. It was an unfamiliar emotion for a man who cherished simple pleasures. He chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully, trying to work out the source of his sudden desire for more than he’d ever need. Kate and the bub, he thought. He’d give them the world, if he could find a way to gift-wrap it.

Read an interview with Susan Duncan 

Susan Duncan authorSusan Duncan enjoyed a 25-year career spanning radio, newspaper and magazine journalism, including editing The Australian Women’s Weekly and New Idea. She now lives in her own patch of offshore paradise, Pittwater, in the beautiful home built for poet Dorothea Mackellar in 1925.Her bestselling memoir, Salvation Creek won the 2007 Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award and was shortlisted for the prestigious Dobbie Award, part of the Nita B Kibble awards for women writers. Its sequel, The House at Salvation Creek, was also a huge bestseller.She has now turned her hand to fiction and is the author of two novels: The Briny Cafe and Gone Fishing.

Visit the publisher’s website

Author: Susan Duncan

Category: Fiction, Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781761067969

RRP: $32.99

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