Almost from the day I first met him, when he returned from his nearly five years in the army during WWII, my relationship with Dad was a troubled one. As far back as I can remember, only once did we have a moment of togetherness, so rare that it’s still clear in my mind. But though there may be no excuses for his attitude to his family, there were 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 parental affection. Rest easy, Norm. You were loved by a lot of people and I learned to love you before you died. I’m glad I didn’t become you but I recognised enough of you in me early enough in life to escape.
I’ve told you a bit about Cockatoo Island and I’ve 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 all 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 things 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 gave me his first edition copy 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 and not, as was usual, as part of a picnic excursion. You beaut!
Silver Gull was a magical spot, its mouth hidden among the mangroves, crocodiles making its banks exciting and its tide-torn, muddy little estuary promising the attention of voracious sharks and giant stingrays to anyone foolish enough to swim there. I suspected, too, that it’d probably be a good spot to hook a barramundi to cook up for tucker so I dipped into my bag.
The Boys who lived in Steinbeck’s flop-house had learned the same lesson as I had: anyone who went abroad in the land without salt and pepper and – along the West Australian coast at least – fishing gear was a dead-set mug. No-one ever went anywhere without Wax Vesta matches and a line. The lines were of green linen cord about as thick as number 12 fencing wire and wrapped around a flat piece of wood, the hooks and sinkers of a size to match. You needed weight to hold the line in the tidal rip and anything that wouldn’t bite on a big hook was bait – with the exception of garfish, long Tom and yellowtail.
In the absence of live bait we used whatever was handy, especially anything light-colored: tinned cheese (bait was about all it was good for), peanuts with the red skin rubbed off, white rag dipped in anything oily, a piece cut from a powdered-milk tin and twisted to turn in the current; you could catch fish by just thinking about it back then.
Back to my story. I’d just thrown the 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 and wrapped a bit 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 and we bin fishin’ for t’ousands of years in Hustralia 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 met fresh, and 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.
A big saltie croc cruised alongside the Lass, glowering at me for the loss of a free meal, but I ignored the old bugger. I could once again handle anything life threw at me.*
*This last paragraph may or may not be true, though there’s every chance that it could be. But the rest of the story is.