Licorice the Cat – A true story

Introduction: This short story written by Sherrie Simms-Farmer, daughter of Spencer Gulf Fishing Icon Ben Simms, recently took out the Kernewek Lowender – Copper Triangle Writers’ Group Literary Prize 2019 – in the Short Story Category.

It is a privilege to share this piece as a guest’s contribution on my site. Sherrie, humbled at the recognition, read this story through misty eyes to those gathered at the event in Moonta Bay as part of the renowned Cornish Festival.

I love the picture this story paints of the life of Licorice. We can all learn a lot from animals.

Licorice, so named because of his luxurious black coat, was born in a small litter on the veranda of the old family home at Trelawney Street, Simms Cove (near Moonta) in 1960. The day was perfect with big fluffy white clouds scudding dreamily across the sky. Ben was walking to his grandmother’s house across the salt pan from his home about half a kilometre toward the beach.

He knew the track well. Now a narrow dusty path cut into the boxthorn, salt bush and acacia. A wonderful haven for the bird life and nectar-loving native insects. Something was flowering in every season of the year. He moved down the belly of the salt pan and up the other side to the very top of the cliff. An imposing 25-mitres the cliffs seemed mountainous to Ben when he was a boy. Today, as a man, he gazed far, far out to sea. His weather worn eyes studied the horizon carefully, reading it to forecast the climate for the next few days. Looking down to the base of the cliff was the whitest sandy beach one could possibly imagine. Paradise right there on the edge of the scrub country. The Spencer Gulf was in Ben’s blood and he would not contemplate living anywhere else. When he was not out fishing Ben trudged this worn path every day and sometimes two or three times. He loved nothing more than to be reminded of the ghost of great uncle Rick and recollect a grand story of his fishing prowess. No need to make them up there are amazing reports of record-breaking journeys in the 54-foot cutter the Minnie Simms. Perhaps the one where he and his lovely wife Clara were becalmed between Thistle and Taylor Islands where their son was conceived.

Alas not today, he arrived to find silence through the house. He suspected that grandma Alice would be taking her afternoon nap. Yeah, and Uncle Bill was probably at the beach or in the shed mending net. ‘Nah he’d be at the beach for sure on a day like this’ Ben thought. Starting off toward the beach Ben headed to the back door.  Taking in the scene he was startled to find Uncle Bill sitting on the grass just outside the back veranda. A ray of dappled sunlight shone through the plants to fall on his dark hair. Surrounded by kittens Bill was sitting on the grass with one kitten hanging from his coat sleeve, another sitting in his lap, and yet another climbing up his other arm toward his shoulder. They were meowing and scratching him which he seemed to enjoy. Eventually Ben noticed another one as his eyes fell upon an all-black kitten sitting at his feet looking up at him. Ben was mesmerised by the fire in the yellow eyes of the kitten and he instinctively bent to scoop him up and placed him in the top pocket of his shirt. “What are you doing Uncle Bill?” Ben asked. “Playing with the kittens before they find a new home”, Bill replied. “Are they being given away?” Ben enquired as he felt the needle like claws dig into his chest. “Yes, I’m going to miss them, and Ross said if they’re not gone by tomorrow some will have to be drowned.” Ben felt a knot tighten in the pit of his stomach. The little kitten mewed, and they looked at each other a moment. Without another word Ben said his good byes and headed back across the paddock with Licorice still in his top pocket. This was the beginning of 17 years before the mast on the fishing vessel the Mary-Ann Simms.

Two years earlier Ben had commissioned the building of a 57-foot schooner rigged wooden fishing boat. It was his pride and joy and Licorice, still in Ben’s top pocket, was taken aboard in the dingy later that very day. After the daily inspection of the engine room and most importantly the bilge water level they stood in the galley where Licorice was given some milk. Ben sat on the bunk awhile and Licorice leaned against him and began to clean his paws and whiskers. He soon fell into a sound sleep so appealing that Ben laid down to join him. The gentle rocking movement of the boat saw them both fall asleep. Ben woke with a mild start after rolling over somewhat concerned that he had squashed poor Licorice. He sat up steadying himself on the bunk while he cleared his head. Licorice was not there.  Ben searched and searched but couldn’t find him and, in the end, decided he’d be back the following day anyway and would look again then.

Early the next morning Ben sculled the dingy out to the boat that laid at anchor some hundred mitres north of the Moonta Bay Jetty. He moved with vigour carrying, among other supplies, a couple of tins of cat food. Ben found Licorice contentedly sleeping on the bunk and was not disturbed in the least by Ben’s arrival. Down the ladder to the engine room he checked and emptied the bilge water and started the engine. The slow revving diesel motor purred into life and soon slipped into the rhythmical sound now so familiar to him. He would stay onboard for an hour and give the engine a good run. Licorice was fed and watered. Ben even bought some of his mother’s scalded cream! He placed an old jumper on the bunk and Licorice curled around and around and slipped back into a sound sleep assisted by the graceful rocking of the boat and the sound of the waves lapping against the hull. For Ben it was the sound of the straining ropes and wind whistling through the riggings that he loved most. This freshening change would blow out tonight and they would fish tomorrow leaving early in the morning.

Favouring Garfish Licorice enjoyed a diet rich in fresh seafood. But when the boat was laying against the jetty in safe harbour, he could be seen trotting down the jetty toward the town of Port Broughton and returning with rabbit, mouse or bird to supplement his fare. Many adventure stories were chronicled highlighting Licorice’s star character. In an article by Stan Wickham, a journalist of the day with Advertiser Newspapers Ltd., Stan confirms the almost acrobatic ability of Licorice to “scamper up and down ship ladders with the aplomb of a mountain goat”. He continues to share the story of Licorice standing up to the Aussie rules star Neil Kerley on a day the football players went on a Schnapper fishing jaunt on the Mary-Ann. Licorice won the tangle biting Neil Kerley’s powerful legs so that “Kerl’s had to back off” according to Stan’s first-hand report.

Ben put the Mary-Ann on the slip for painting and maintenance every year and sometimes twice a year. On this memorable day in Port Adelaide when the time came to go off the slip Licorice was nowhere to be found. Ben steamed the boat across the Port River and along side the wharf. Despite driving back around to the slipway a little later that day – still no Licorice. By this time Ben was thirsting for some of the local ale and went to the British Hotel. While they were there some of the crew travelled the short distance to the slip looking for Licorice but again came back empty handed. With a heavy heart Ben went back to the boat to prepare to sail the next morning. On arrival at the boat Ben met the Wharfinger who said, “If you’re looking for Licorice Ben, he’s in your wheelhouse, and on the bunk drying himself. I watched him swim across the river and climb aboard your boat half an hour ago!”. They were together again.

Ben will never forget the day he had to leave Port Lincoln without Licorice aboard. He’d waited longer than he should have as it was and eventually had to leave him behind. Ben was due to return home at the end of the tuna season and spirits were low. Everyone in Port Lincoln knew that Licorice had missed the boat and they were all looking out for him. Ben called in by radio from time to time but alas Licorice was not sighted. Before he arrived home, Ben heard the heart-warming message that Licorice had been found. His cousin, Thistle Simms, found Licorice pacing up and down the town jetty looking for the boat. Not risking Licorice disappearing again Thistle promptly put him in a cardboard box and took him aboard the Claire Crouch where another cousin, Garth Simms, was the skipper. The acid tanker was due to move up the gulf to Port Pirie that very day. Ben dropped anchor north of Cowell at Shoalwater Point and waited for the Claire Crouch to sail up the gulf. In radio contact with Garth Ben knew when to expect the boat. At 9pm when Ben could see the lights of the Claire Crouch ahead, he jumped in the net dingy to intercept her.

When Garth ‘hove to’ Ben went along side. He could hear Licorice going mad in the cardboard box and Ben suspected he had recognised the sound of the net boats motor. Once aboard the dingy Licorice escaped the box and crawled under Ben’s oil skin coat.

To live to such a ripe old age could not have been imagined if you knew of him and his courageous adventures. Just sleeping in the folds of the sail was a dangerous past time. One day while doing just that the sail filled with a strong puff of wind and Licorice flew across the deck to land without incident on all fours.  And then there was the day that Ken Tidswell, the skipper of the fishing vessel the Estelle Star, brought his sulphur-crested Cockatoo aboard the Mary-Ann. They spent all afternoon with the crew enjoying a BBQ on the back deck and drinking beer together like good friends do.

After a long, full and adventurous life, wrapped in canvas and chains, Licorice was given a fitting sea burial. The fishing ground, proudly called Licorice, is to this day known for huge shoals of schnapper.

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