Almost from the day I met him, my relationship with Dad was a troubled one. Only once did we have a moment of togetherness; long, long ago but so unusual that it’s still clear in my mind. Although there may be no excuses for his attitude to his family, there were very valid reasons, and as I came to appreciate them my attitude softened.
Young enough to be almost of another generation, my youngest brother, who along with my littlest sister missed the tempestuous earlier days of our family life, helped me forgive him and find some measure of peace in that part of me that always craved paternal affection. Rest easy, Norm. You were loved by a lot of people and I, too, learned to do so before you died and I recognized enough of you in me soon enough to escape most of it.
I’ve told you a bit about Cockatoo Island. I also mentioned Alf Brown, the Torres Strait man from Thursday Island and now you’ve heard a bit about my Dad. All these figure in what I’m about to tell you today, along with another protagonist – a female barramundi almost as big as I was – who didn’t want to be in this story at all but who provided source material for a valuable lesson that, when later in life I came to understand it, shaped my relationships with children and helped my youngest son become the wonderful person that he is.
Cockatoo Island had very little permanent fresh water and to fill the big storage tanks up on the hill, supplies were brought by barge from Silver Gull Creek. This water barge was towed by Yampi Lass II and what with the speed of the tow, the giant tides – nearly 40 feet – and the time needed to pump the water, it involved a two-day trip about once every few weeks or thereabouts, depending on the season.
So, this one time I’m talking about, I’d had a pretty full-on blue with the Old Man and everyone in the house were pretty much on the toe. I’d stayed away overnight, in the little patch of sandy hillocks by the lagoon, and of course on an island that size there was no hiding the fact that things were a bit crook in the Povah household.
Two-Ton Tony, a mate of Dad’s and the man who once gave me his first edition of Tarzan Of The Apes to read, suggested that if I wanted to go over to Silver Gull on the boat, he’d fix it up with Norm and Tas, the skipper and a good mate of both men. No sooner said than done. All set. I could go over on my Pat – by myself – and not, as was often the case, as part of a picnic excursion. You beaut!
Silver Gull was a magical spot. Its mouth protected by lush, green mangrove forest, it provided a day camp for flying-foxes and rich habitat for the birds who’d learned to exploit its wealth. Giant mangrove snails, edible and delicious, patrolled the branches and at low tide, huge mud crabs protected their succulent flesh with nippers that could crush a big toe. Mud-skippers, goggle-eyes staring skywards, denied their fishness by resting on the tide-exposed mud, seemingly pondering whether or not it would be worthwhile to change their fins for wings. Crocodiles made the muddy banks exciting and Silver Gull’s tide-ripped, cloudy little estuary promised the attentions of voracious sharks and mythically huge eagle rays to anyone foolish enough to swim there.
My education had told me that it’d probably be a good spot to hook a barramundi for tucker so as soon as I could move around on deck without getting in the way, I got out my gear.
The Boys of Steinbeck’s flop-house had learned the same valuable lesson as I had: anyone who went abroad in the land without salt and pepper in a pocket was a dead-set mug. My early education in resourcefulness expanded on that lesson: when living on the coast, never go anywhere without a tin of Bell’s Wax Vesta matches and a fishing line.
Carried wrapped around a flat piece of V-notched wood, the lines of the day were of green linen cord about as thick as number-12 fencing wire, the hooks and sinkers of a size to match. You needed a lot of weight to hold the line in the sucking tidal eddies and anything that wouldn’t bite on a big hook was looked on as bait – with the exception of garfish, long Tom and yellowtail.
The archipelago’s waters once seethed with life and in the absence of live bait we used whatever was at hand, especially anything light-colored: tinned cheese, peanuts with the red skin rubbed off, white rag dipped in something oily, a piece cut from a powdered-milk tin and twisted to turn in the current – you could catch fish just by thinking about it back then.
Back to my story. I’d just thrown my line in when Alf came up to me. “Sorry to tell yer this son,” he said dolefully, “knowing all yer worry about ’ome an’ all. But you won’t ketch nothin’ ’ere. Water’s all wrong.”
Scowling at the spot where my line met the water, I ignored him as best I could; adults, even Alf, weren’t in my good books just then. He’d hardly left my side when – bang! – a big barra hit the hook and, feeling the resistance; hurled herself out of the water. I let out a yell – half elation, half fear – and wrapped a turn of line around a deck stanchion; I knew I wouldn’t be able to hang on just with my hands. Nobody came near me while I struggled with her, and I pulled and belayed, pulled and belayed, hoping like hell that something bigger wouldn’t take a lump out of her till she was tired enough to land.
When at last she was on deck I stood looking at the brilliant silver body with that mixture of triumph and guilt that to this day still plagues me when I catch a fish. Alf’s shadow crossed us both. “Strike a light, boy,” he said. “My people, we’re saltwater people y’know; we’re big canoe people; we bin knowin about fishin’ for t’ousands of years and we’d never b’lieve to ketch a fish ’ere. No fear we wouldn’t.”
I forgot that it was one of my brown heroes who’d told me that barramundi bite best where saltwater meets fresh, I forgot that Alf came from an island on the other side of the country – and I forgot about my row with Dad. I also remembered I was actually worth something as a human being and the world wasn’t all that bad. Not really.
A big saltie croc cruised alongside the Lass, glowering at me for the loss of his free meal, but I ignored the old bugger. I could handle anything life threw at me.*
*An apology. I think I may have made the croc up, but the rest of the story is pretty much as it happened.