‘What did you say?’ I stared at mine host in horror.
‘I said,’ he repeated patiently, ‘that you have to be very, very careful of Old Saltie. She’s a right old bitch, cunning as all get out, and she’ll have you for dinner as quick as look at you. She’s quick, cunning, ruthless, a born killer and you have to be very, very careful in her territory.’
The smart little bastard was a telepath, no doubt of it. He’d been reading my mind – that was exactly what I’d been thinking about Old Saltie, my revered and respectable mother-in-law, the dishonorable Mrs. Saltash. He had picked my thoughts straight from my brain to say them, out loud, to this wide-eyed group of happy eco-tourists in the happy eco-tourist paradise of Crocodile River. How was he doing it?
The khaki kid went on with his talk: ‘Old Saltie hasn’t killed anyone yet, but we know she’s there and she’s just waiting for the opportunity. She’s a man-hater, all right.’
He’d described the old bat perfectly. Funny, when Gail and I first married, I’d thought her mother was a real character and laughed at her witticisms, and even admired her stubbornness. I called it determination then. Just goes to show how young I was, or how much in love I was with my Gail, not to recognize the danger in her mother’s glittering little reptilian eyes. She was so sweet on the surface, all cosmetics and gleaming spun sugar, but underneath there was always a quick slash of spiteful words disguised with a giggle, a stiletto to the heart delivered with a smile, and a grim determination to rule whatever roost she chose as hers. Unfortunately, since her last stroke, her current roost was our spare room and she now ruled my house with indefatigable venom.
My thoughts returned to their cycle of quiet horrors. There was no way out: the only way to freedom, for myself and my wife and our children, was if Old Saltie died. Despite her latest stroke, the horrible old woman was getting healthier every day, and looked as though she was settling in to outlive the whole family.
‘Yeah,’ the khaki kid continued. ‘Old Saltie is just waiting for her moment to strike, which is why all the rivers and riverbanks are out of bounds for everyone. We know she’s there, we just don’t know where, so we ask everyone to please keep to the marked paths and to do your river watching either in a boat with one of us authorized guides or from your verandahs over the water. Never go wandering along the riverbank by yourself, and especially not at sundown, which is when most croc attacks happen.
‘Croc,’ I exclaimed. ‘Crocodile. Old Saltie is a crocodile.’
Not only the khaki kid looked at me in amazement, the whole group of happy eco-tourists was doing the same thing. Fair enough too, seeing the whole damned holiday camp was called Crocodile River. They must have thought I was dumb as well as deaf. I smiled weakly and tried for an excuse.
‘Sorry. It’s been a long drive to get here.’
They relaxed slightly; some even offered faint smiles of commiseration. They were all young, healthy, fit, some obviously on their honeymoon and focused more on each other than on the khaki kid. Most obviously weren’t Australian, except possibly for the lost-cause, dread-locked, hairy-legged couple, dressed in every colour of the rainbow. I had a private bet with myself that they would be vegetarian. Over the years I have noticed that becoming a vegetarian often made you lose your sense of style and colour, along with all your razors.
I reckon there wasn’t one in the group over 25 and here was I, unfit, overweight, over 40, having my annual holiday hijacked by the Old Saltie in our family, insisting that our children, my wife and I should become ecologically aware by coming to this damned, out-of-the-way, over-priced, tourist trap. I reckon she only chose here because the kids had asked if we could go to Disneyland, which gave her the opportunity to lecture us all on The American Takeover of Australian Culture and Values. As if she cared; all she cared about was getting her own way. She was just a bloody-minded old woman, who would automatically take the opposite view, just because she could.
‘Please make sure you warn everyone in your groups who hasn’t come to the Introduction Lecture,’ instructed the khaki kid. ‘And welcome to Crocodile River. We hope your stay will be enjoyable as well as instructive.’ He offered a blazing smile blinding us with the contrast of his artificially whitened teeth in his tanned, young face, smartly turned around and marched off to the Information Centre, probably to stock the shelves with more crocodile teeth pendants, Akubra hats and khaki shorts to sell to the tourists.
I walked slowly back to our cabin, thinking furiously. It was incredible, amazing, a miracle? Certainly it was more than a co-incidence, with two Old Salties present. Equally certainly it could be an answer to all my problems. But I couldn’t ….. or could I?
My Old Saltie banged her cane on the verandah rail to get my attention as I mounted the stairs. As if I could miss noticing her; she was relaxing over a cup of tea, while Gail and the kids did all the unpacking and settling into the cabin, even though this eco-holiday was her idea. The old bitch would live forever, with attendant slaves at hand.
‘Where have you been?’ she demanded.
‘At the welcome lecture.’
‘Lot of nonsense.’
‘Perhaps. They did say not to walk along the riverbank at sunset.’
‘Why not? Lot of nonsense,’ she repeated.
‘It’s their riverbank. They make the rules.’
She snorted angrily as I shrugged my shoulders philosophically and went inside to help my wife and daughters unpack and tell them what I’d learned. As I relayed to them when the dining hall opened, what time breakfast was served, when the crocodile spotting boat tour left in the morning and all the other eco-delights in store for us, as well as what the khaki kid had said about the rogue crocodile, I listened to sounds of my own rogue crocodile. Sure enough, I could hear her stumping quietly down the steps to walk along the riverbank at sunset, just because she’d been told not to, and waited with a little thrill of anticipation for the screams and the splash that would surely come, that had to come, when two Old Salties met at last.