Happy Valley - An Australian Taxation Office Catch

I heard this story first hand

Many years ago, on the North Coast of New South Wales, between the railway line and the sand dunes, there was a peaceful place known as Happy Valley. The residents of Happy Valley were a happy lot: itinerant railway workers, fettlers, aborigines, the occasional swag-man and young fisherman who’s we’ll call Tommy B. You see, Tommy is a real person and he could still be alive today, so we won’t give his real name.

This isn't Tommy B's boat, but it was around this size
This isn't Tommy B's boat, but it was around this size

Tommy B was a very happy man

Well, Tommy B was a popular man. Popular not only in Happy Valley but in the nearby town. It was a fishing town- still is, and Tommy was a fisherman- a professional- a man who made his living from the sea.

Tommy had been a fisherman all of his life, as was his father before him. No one could remember Tommy’s mother, and apparently he’d been an only child. But they all remembered Tommy’s father. Tom and his father had fished and fished down the years and then, back in World War Two Tommy’s dad had died.

A loan fisherman heads out to sea, as Tommy did every evening until that fateful day the letter arrived
A loan fisherman heads out to sea, as Tommy did every evening until that fateful day the letter arrived

Tom knew where the best fish could be caught

Tom was only fourteen then. But he knew his trade. He could handle a boat, paint-brush and scraper. And already knew how to drive a car, and weave a lobster pot. And fish! Tommy B knew the very best spots. He knew where the biggest most succulent lobsters could be trapped; he knew where the best fish could be caught.

Quickly he took to working alone where he his father together had left off. Tom would go to the long jetty when the sun was falling low across the mountains to the west. He’d untie his little 25 foot fishing boat, The Esmeralda, and swing the great flywheel of the Lister Diesel once, twice and- Putt putt, putt putt, putt putt, head out past the breakwater for the open sea.

 

This isn't Tommy B. Tommy only 'handlined' working three or four spools at the same time.
This isn't Tommy B. Tommy only 'handlined' working three or four spools at the same time.

Happy Valley - An Australian Taxation Office Catch

All night he would hand-line. The plump, wriggling fish would come in over the side, gasping and quivering from the cold depths. He’d unhook the grey and silvery bodies and toss them into wooden boxes lined with ice. Occasionally a giant Hump Back whale would sough, and wheeze alongside as it swam, sometimes alone, sometimes among its pod, northwards to the warmer Queensland waters. But mostly Tommy was alone.

Typical fishing wharf when boats are in
Typical fishing wharf when boats are in

Laughing, jostling people would gather on wharf for Tom's return

In the bright morning, Tommy would chug back to the shore. Laughing, jostling people would gather at the wharf as Tommy sold them a John Dory or a big Spanish Mackerel for a few shillings. Then Tommy would head for the fish-and-chip shops, the hotels, and the restaurants to sell his catch. He would whistle, and laugh, and throw in an extra fish or two for free. A happy man, generous man was our Tommy B.

Yes, Tommy lived in Happy Valley in a tiny, timber and tar-paper hut. There was no sanitation, no electricity. The shanty was so close to the sea you could, on a stormy night, feel the vibration of the surf through the boards. He lived with Carmen, a half Spanish, half Aboriginal Woman who could cook like like a master chief.

 

No, this isn't Tommy home from a night out, but this is the sort of reception the seabirds gave him
No, this isn't Tommy home from a night out, but this is the sort of reception the seabirds gave him

He trapped scrumptious lobsters in abundance

And when Tommy B wasn’t fishing, he drive his battered old Austin Ute to the deep woods to cut slim saplings for his lobster pots. He knew all the best spots. And in the sunlight in winter, the shade in summer, his strong hands would weave the baskets, the pots, to catch those scrumptious lobsters, which he trapped in such abundance.

Yes, Tommy B’s life was perfect. And he was so, so happy. -And then something happened.

 

Once again, this isn't Tommy.  But it'll give you an indcation of the lobsters he landed from his pots
Once again, this isn't Tommy. But it'll give you an indcation of the lobsters he landed from his pots

Happy Valley - An Australian Taxation Office Catch

Far away to the south, in a high building set amongst other high building in the centre of a great city a conversation was taking place. A grey haired man, his face filled with consternation and lines etched with the bitterness of a life misspent, turned to his younger companions.

“Gentlemen, we must do something. There are hundred of them up there. And I doubt if one in three is paying his correct income tax. It’s our duty to protect the revenue. Perhaps, if we forced them to sell their product -I’m talking about their fish now- forced ‘em by law to sell through a co-operative, yes, a ‘co-op,’ we could then ascertain just how much they are selling and how much money they are making. Because, certainly, they are not paying their fair share of income tax.”

This man was, of course, an Assistant Commissioner of Taxation.

The beach directly behind Happy Valley. The huts, humpies, and fettlers' tents are gone now.
The beach directly behind Happy Valley. The huts, humpies, and fettlers' tents are gone now.

Far away a law was passed and...

Well, it came to pass that in MacQuarie Street’s hallowed halls- I talk of the New South Wales Parliament- a law was passed. That law stated that all the professional fishermen from thereon had to sell their fish through certain centres or co-operatives set up by the government. To sell any other way would be illegal.

Well, Tommy B complied. He was a good man. No, Tommy was no crook.

And it also came to pass that after those co-operatives had been in action for a couple of years, two ambitious young men, wearing business suits and ties, were despatched from that tall building set among other tall buildings in the big city to the south. They were carrying leather briefcases and calculators. And they duly arrived in the little fishing port not far from Happy Valley.

 

Not THE valley, not Tommy's hut, but very similar
Not THE valley, not Tommy's hut, but very similar

The trusting fishermen bought the strangers beer

The fishermen talked to the strangers and bought them beer at the jetty pub. And all the while the ambitious young men in their city suits asked questions.

It wasn’t too long before they learned of Tommy B. The men in suits paid him a visit at his boat, never bothering to go to his home in Happy Valley. Then they went away.

Some weeks later Tom was handed a big, bulky envelope- a letter. He’d never had anything like this before. He opened it and...

 

Another small fisherman about the same size as Tom's boat the 'Esmerelda' (not her true name)
Another small fisherman about the same size as Tom's boat the 'Esmerelda' (not her true name)

Happy Valley - An Australian Taxation Office Catch

Tom couldn’t really understand it. It said something about an Assessment. An Assessment based on anticipated earnings over the past five years. It said that he owned money. Tom didn’t really know why. Tom had always paid cash for his diesel fuel, his petrol for the ute- his tobacco and his tucker. And most other things he got by swapping a few fish for whatever he needed. Now, here was this letter saying he had to pay the Commonwealth Government 7,000 pounds in back taxes. And Tom had never seen more than fifty pounds in cash money in his whole young life.

Tom went to his prime form of information - his local pub

Well, Tom, didn’t know what to do so he went up the pub. There, he was told by, Mavis, the barmaid, and Gerald, the cellarman, that if they were he, they’d go and see an solicitor. And, after asking what a solicitor was and whether they had such a thing in town, he went.

“Tommy,” said the solicitor. It looks bad. Still, I think that I can help you.

“Now, let’s see. You owe all of this money and you cannot afford to pay. Now, Tommy, you have a boat, the Esme. Must be worth a few thousand. But they can’t take her. You see, you need your boat for your livelihood. How are you ever going to pay back money if you can’t earn any? And fishing’s all you know.

“Why, in this town, son, if you don't fish you have to go on social welfare."

Such happiness, Tom knew, before the world told him he shouldn't be.  No, this isn't Tom, either
Such happiness, Tom knew, before the world told him he shouldn't be. No, this isn't Tom, either

Tom's solicitor offered some legal advice

“And, Tom, you have a vehicle- your old Austin ute. But you need that for your livelihood. You’ve need that ute to take your catch to the Co-op, yes, and to go into the deep woods to collects saplings to make your lobster pots.

“And your home- well.... what there is of it. It’s erected on Railway land. So they can’t take that either.

“And you told me yourself you’ve got no money in the bank, so they can’t take that.

“And as for my fee for this advice- half a dozen crays for my daughter’s twenty-first birthday won’t go astray- But make sure you put ‘em through the co-op.

“But, Tom, you are so deep in debt that you will never be able to get out of it. You see, the more you earn the more they will take in tax. If you work seven days a week you’ll make a lot of money and they will take it all.

Happy Valley - An Australian Taxation Office Catch

“Now, Tom, if you were to go out fishing a little less. Earn maybe enough to pay for your food, your fuel, an occasional beer- you follow my drift?”

Tom was not educated but he was smart. He followed the solicitor’s drift.

It was about this time that I met Tommy B. That was back in ‘58. I was a young sailor on leave from the Navy when I went north to Happy Valley. A friend and I dined at Tommy’s cabin, served by that wondrous Spanish-Aboriginal woman who co-habitated with our hero. We dined on lobster, and drank Muscat and Port.

But Tom was different by then. He didn’t go out in his fishing boat much anymore.

Instead, he would sit on the end of the jetty stare out to sea. You’d say, “Tommy, looks like it’ll be a good night to fish, tonight. You going out?”

The wharf in the day's that Tom fished.  Maybe you can guess where the "Vally" was now...
The wharf in the day's that Tom fished. Maybe you can guess where the "Vally" was now...

Tom's whole demeanour had changed.

Tom would take out his tobacco and slowly roll a cigarette. He’d study the sea for a long while then say, “Naw, not today. Looks like a Southerly gonna come up tonight.” And there wouldn’t be a trace of cloud in the sky. Not a trace.

And the next day. “Look’s like a good day to go out, Tom.”

“Naw, tides not right.”

Next day “Looking good, Tom. Fine day to catch those fish.”

“No, too cold, currents not right.”

Or, “Esmeralda’s on the slips for a scrape. Can’t go today.”

Or, “The diesel motor’s mucking up.”

It was any excuse. And Tom would tilt his demi-john of Port Wine to his lips, his face unshaven, his hair long and unkempt.

And nobody was happy any more

And so, Tom, who used to go out six days a week, would now go out on one.

And he never caught too many fish. And the people no longer gathered at the jetty and laughed a cried with glee when he sold them a John Dory, or a big Spanish Mackerel. And the people in the kitchens of the Hotels and restaurants no longer smiled and joked with Tommy B. Because he didn’t call in anymore.

And nobody was happy. In Happy Valley or the fishing town close by.

The moved the people away.  Now high-rise holiday accommodation overlook the place where Tommy and his friends once lived.
The moved the people away. Now high-rise holiday accommodation overlook the place where Tommy and his friends once lived.

An Australian Taxation Office Catch - Except, maybe some city dwellers

Well, that’s not quite true. The two young men in their city suits- they were happy. You see they went back to their tall building among the tall buildings of the big city and they were happy. The Assistant Commissioner congratulated them for putting things right. He was happy, too. Even the Minister for Finance was pleased. You see, for doing such a good job in Happy Valley - they were all in line for staff promotion. 

2 comments

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

I got that story. It does happen that an out-of-the-blue tax assessment can ruin a small businessman's life. This was well-written and kept me engaged all the way through it.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

No one is free anymore -- not here,there or anywhere. Makes you wonder, doesn't it. Lynda

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