By Nicole Crowe
I’m sitting with my friend Eliza in her living room when her husband comes out of the nursery. “This one has three hooks.” He hands me a fishing lure.
“Adam, Nicole didn’t come over here to see that,” Eliza says. “And you better have all those rods out of there before this baby comes.” She rubs her belly while Adam flicks through photos on his phone.
“Look, I caught this one on the weekend. It is foreign species. Very bad for rivers so we have to kill it.”
I first met Adam in London. Eliza and I had moved there on working holiday visas with a grand plan to see the world. It turned out that all we saw were other Australians. Then one day Poland joined the EU and emptied out in under a week. Suddenly, London had the Polish washing dishes in almost every restaurant. They laid bricks in the snow. They cleaned toilets in hotels. They poured drinks in bars. Their willingness to work vastly exceeded their English language skills so they’d sign any contract you put in front of them. They were an employer’s dream and a politician’s nightmare. When I met Adam the only English words he knew were ‘hello’ and ‘job.’ Anyone else thinking about moving to a foreign country might have considered this a serious impediment. If you can’t speak the language how do you compliment someone on their hairstyle? How do you ask for directions when you inevitably become lost? And how do you describe the brutality of your thrush to an emergency room doctor? Sure, in a public transport situation inserting a stranger’s hand into your body would be frowned upon, but in a hospital? A doctor’s hand? To this day I don’t know how Adam got through his medical emergencies, but the word ‘job’ got him work in a restaurant and the word ‘hello’ got him a girlfriend.
“I met him at a heavy metal concert in Camden.” Eliza told me by way of introduction. “We had an instant connection.”
“How?” I said. “You can’t talk to him.”
“We speak the language of love.”
Now he speaks the language of fishing. To me. Every time I see him. In the last ten years, Adam has taken to English like a linguistic scrapbooker, taking only what he needs and discarding the rest. In Adam’s eyes, English, and probably Polish, too, is only as good as its application to fishing. Words like ‘small talk’ and ‘smart casual’ do not align with his interests and are regarded with indifference.
But I persist. “Adam, how’s the café going? Did that assistant of yours end up going to jail after that bar fight?” Adam looks down at his phone, ignoring me, searching for the photo with the best light. I own no jiggers and have never set foot inside a bait-and-tackle store, yet still Adam shows me photo after photo of dead fish. When people know some basic things about you they tend to extrapolate the rest. If you once purchased an alarm clock in the shape of a tree frog you naturally want frog-based gifts for the next twenty years. If you grew up within spitting distance of the equator you don’t feel the heat and therefore have no right to complain if the temperature is high enough to fry an egg on the footpath. I tell Adam I know nothing about fishing and his face falls. “But you grew up on an island,” he says. “There are so many fish.”
I feel bad for lying but I can never tell him the truth. The events of that afternoon many years ago must live only in the nightmares of my mother, my brother and I because all the Hail Marys in the world cannot undo what we did.
I was eight years old when fish went from visual white noise to an actual presence in my life. I made this discovery not through the notoriously unreliable mode of observation, but in a more age-appropriate way: television. At the dawn of the flannel age, we only had two channels but each one sent manly men out in boats armed with nothing but a rod and an enthusiasm for the word ‘strewth.’ These were brave, powerful, family men who volunteered to go to war with the barramundi. If they sat around for hours getting sunburnt you never saw it. You only got the highlights. “You beauty!” they’d shout as the line went taut. Biceps strained. Sweat ran down their faces and into their mouths but they didn’t care. They had a job to do. The fish at the end of the line thrashed and struggled but there was no hope for it. The spotted cod or grouper had bitten the right lure. It was at the end of the right kind of line operated by the right kind of rod. It would be hauled into the boat where it would continue to thrash and then die. Because men are smart and fish are stupid.
I watched these battles, too excited to breathe. Because I realised I had an advantage over these men. They lived in cities and had to drive great distances to get to the ocean, while I had it at the end of my street. All those fish within spitting distance of my house. Step into the water and there were a dozen of them at your feet, swimming around like they’d never heard of drowning. I would be brave and powerful. I would catch the fish. I would catch it and ride it into the unknown.
“Dad,” I said, barging into his studio under our house. “You need to take me fishing.”
My father looked up from the banana logo he was working on. “Why?”
“Because it’s what dads do.”
“I’m not taking you fishing. You’ll hate it, anyway. It’s boring.” I knew this was a lie. He wouldn’t take me fishing for the same reason he wouldn’t watch nature documentaries: “When they’re not mating, they’re tearing each other to pieces.” A killer whale sunk its teeth into a penguin and here was my father reaching for the remote. “It’s awful. Just awful.”
“But it’s nature. It’s what animals – Dad, are you…crying?”
“Don’t be stupid. I’ve just…got something in my eye. Go to your room.”
I begged him to take me fishing but he still refused. I begged him some more and he started shouting. So I told on him.
“Mum,” I complained. “Dad won’t take me fishing. And now he’s yelling at me.”
“Stephen, just take Nicole fishing will you?”
Common wisdom dictates that a child should have two parents. The conservative minds among us insist these parents should go by the names ‘mother’ and ‘father’ because only a father can show you how to substitute underpants for swimmers. And only a mother can show you how to build a fire and add just enough kerosene so that your burns will be second degree, not third. Yes, two parents are ideal for a child. One parent means one boss. Two bosses means a state of endless confusion and compromise, conditions under which a self-interested child can thrive. I knew my father would say no to fishing. I knew he would get angry. And I used this to get to my mother. “Make Dad take me fishing.”
My mother rubbed her forehead, wondering why she didn’t just up and leave. “Really, Stephen?”
“Do you want to finish these bananas?” he asked. “No, I didn’t think so.”
Faced with our belligerence and her need for harmony, my mother had nowhere to go. Except to the beach. “I’ll take you tomorrow.”
At seven years old I knew that the ocean is a liar and that nobody cared. A child lies to a parent and gets a smack. A bank lies to its customers and people riot. But the ocean lies to the entire human race and there is no punishment. No public outcry, no class action, not a peep out of Judge Judy. Because the ocean’s lies are good for business. A lot of people make a lot of money off the idea that the reef and its water is safe. Hotels, pleasure cruise operators, wild life photographers, even the people who paint sunsets on coconuts, they’re all in on it. Threaten these people with violence and not one of them will admit that the reef is actually an all-out slaughter. Everything is out to get you, a fact that becomes horribly real when, as a young child, you find yourself standing in soggy shoes at the edge of the water. This was a school excursion for the local six-year-olds. Our teacher, a friendly woman inside the classroom, addressed our group in a stern military tone. “Listen here.” She picked up a stick and used it to poke a large, beautiful shell. “This is a cone shell,” she said. “Don’t you ever pick one of these up because it will bite you and five minutes later, you’ll be dead. You see those stripes?”
We saw them alright. Standing there with our mouths open, we stared at the black and white zig zag pattern like it held the answers to all of our problems. On my shelf at home I had polished rocks and crystals, kookaburra feathers and an echidna quill. I had a yellow cowrie shell, and an abalone shell I’d stolen from my father, and in that moment I would have traded my entire collection for that single cone shell. The faces of my classmates told me they were thinking the same. We were captivated by the danger as much as the beauty of it, desperate to hold it and see what would happen. The teacher made a move to leave and one boy saw his chance; overcome with desire, he lunged.
“Stop.” The teacher kicked the shell into the water. “Did you hear me? That shell can kill you.”
It was a vivid and frightening lesson about my neighbourhood. On land it’s usually the ugly things – snakes, spiders, giant flying cockroaches – that you have to look out for. They make sense. They’re mean because they’re ugly. The ocean has its share of mean ugly things too, sharks being the most obvious. But sharks tends to hang around in deep, underpopulated, boring water, so my chances of meeting one were low. I’d also heard from a reliable source that if you got yourself in trouble with a shark all you had to do was punch it in the nose. When I punched my brother he went off like a fire alarm so I felt I could handle a shark. Jellyfish, as far as I knew, had no noses. There was only one thing to be done if you were stung by a box jellyfish, and that was to die. This was not ideal but jellyfish and sharks were known quantities to me. I knew what they looked like, how they operated, where they spent their leisure time. But the creatures that were really out to get me were the ones I most wanted to put in my pocket.
The men on TV didn’t let fear stop them. On the contrary, it was likely fear that drove them out onto the ocean. Instead of curling into a ball, these men turned their fear into productive bloodlust.
In the bathroom I practiced shouting ‘strewth’ into the mirror. The trick was to emphasise the ‘rew’. It sounded tougher that way. I didn’t have a fishing shirt and a check under the house revealed that I wouldn’t have any lures either, only a couple of rusty hooks covered in spider webs.
“Look,” my mother said. She upturned a bucked of washing into the tub. “We’ll put the fish in here.”
“That’s not a fish box. It doesn’t even have a ruler on it.”
“Just get in the car.”
My brother had to come too, partly because my father couldn’t be trusted to keep a five-year-old alive, and partly because he was a boy. Clayton couldn’t tie his shoes without help, but we figured the Y chromosomes might come in handy when we had something to kill. It wouldn’t be until Clayton turned fourteen and learned the meaning of the words ‘bacon,’ ‘steak,’ and ‘sausage’ that he would renounce meat and commit to a lifetime of vegetarianism.
There is an unfinished quality about the island, as if it is the work-in-progress of some enormous cosmic child. Granite boulders were piled up out of the water, but just before the real work of shaping the land could begin, before there was time to level it off and add useful things like fertile soil and talking penguins, the call for dinner came and the child rushed off to a meal that is still going on, several million years later. “May I be excused now?” I imagine this child asking, but the mother has had enough.
“I already told you, finish your carrots.”
“But I hate carrots.”
“You can sit there for another millennium for all I care. You’re not going anywhere until you finish your dinner.”
But we make do with the island’s uneven topography. Over time a layer of vegetation has evolved. At the water’s edge, pine trees grow from the cracks between the rocks like hair from a high forehead. And the island’s now signature boulders send the tourists into a spin. The budget traveler is highly attuned to the recreational possibilities of a four-story rock. “What do you think?” asks the sunburned driver of the topless hire car. “I bet I can climb it.”
His companion cranes his neck. “If you fall you’ll die.”
“Yeah. I can totally climb it.”
The more globally-minded tourist sees another rock, this one the size of a city bus, balanced on an edge. “Quick, Tom, take a photo.” She then pushes against it, pretending to stop it from falling. “It’s just like the Leaning Tower of Pisa! Ha. Isn’t this great?”
In a more superstitious time the people of Magnetic Island would have killed these tourists, but these days they’re protected by law. We have to find other outlets for our murderous impulses.
“Strewth,” I shouted at the water.
“Will you sit down?” my mother said. “You’ll scare the fish.”
Where the men on the TV had boats and coolers and hooks with multicoloured lures, we had three dusty hand lines and oysters we’d chipped off the rocks. We sat in the sun and waited. And waited.
To a child, five minutes feels like an hour. This is because a child can achieve a lot in five minutes. Five minutes is all it takes to discover a strange nest, locate a stick to poke it with, learn that the nest is occupied by a family of wasps, fail at running and succeed at crying. I have no idea how long we waited for the fish to bite because time felt endless without the high drama of pain and danger. I do remember my mother attacking me with sunscreen when my brother let out a yelp. “Fish.”
If names are anything to go by, fish don’t get a lot of respect. The elephants and wolves got the best names. Whales did alright too, but they’re big and easy to spot. The King’s Namer was likely in a good mood when he set out to label all the beasts of the ocean, and who wouldn’t be with a ship full of rum and oranges? In his pocket he had his pre-prepared list of names and all he had to do was find sea creatures to give them to. “That big round thing there,” he said to his manservant. “That’s going to be a turtle. And did you see that jump out of the water? That one’s a dolphin.”
“Very good, Sir, but I think there’s something large under the hull.”
“Lovely! That’s a squid. Oh look, a tentacle just got hold of the cabin boy. Better upgrade that to giant squid.”
I don’t know how long his list was but at some point it ran out, as did the booze and oranges. Cold sober and full of scurvy, the job is always the first to slide.
“What shall we call this one, Sir?” asked the manservant, holding up a wet fish.
“Damn salt water. How the hell do you get it out of your clothes? This chafing is unbearable. What, you want another name? Well, it has a flat head. Call it a flathead.”
At this point the manservant probably feared a whipping just for opening his mouth but there was work to be done. “And this fish, Sir?”
“I don’t want to see anything unless it’s a woman. I haven’t had a woman in months.”
“It has many bright colours, Sir, and what looks to be a beak.”
“Parrot fish. Now go fetch me my calamine lotion.”
Our encounter with a parrot fish began with a tug on the end of my brother’s line.
“It’s probably just caught on a piece of coral,” my mother said, taking the reel.
It turns out that a parrot fish, when hauled gasping from the water, lets out a shriek loud enough to send a two children into hysterics.
“I need a rock,” our mother shouted. “Get me a rock.”
The pair of us went scrambling and came back with a rock the size of a coffee mug.
“Don’t watch,” she said and brought it down on the fish’s head. This only encouraged it to scream louder and slip from her hand, landing in a crevice where it twitched and gulped furiously. “Quick,” she said. “Go get it.”
I recalled the last time my mother had made a demand like that. My brother and I had been playing loudly in the house, knocking into furniture and generally causing chaos. “That’s the third warning,” she shouted from the garden, which meant one thing and one thing only. The wooden spoon was kept on top of the fridge. It was mostly used as a threat but her tone told us that this time she meant it. So we beat her to it. With the aid of a kitchen stool we took the spoon and hid it under my pillow. When our mother reached the fridge, furious at her disobedient children, her hand found only dust balls and unopened bills. “Where is it?”
Clayton and I looked at one another. “We don’t know,” I said. “You must have lost it.”
“Go and bring it to me right now or you’ll get a smack twice as hard.”
I cried more from shock and humiliation than from pain. And as much as I hated it, I understood that I had done something wrong and the spoon was my punishment. Now, I hoped she would beat me with the rock and throw the fish back into the water. If that’s what it took to spare its life, I didn’t care that I was innocent.
“Please,” I begged. “Can’t we just let it go?”
“It’s injured now. We have to put it out of its misery.”
Sobbing, I retrieved the fish and delivered it screaming to its executioner. “You’re supposed to use a knife.”
“We didn’t bring one. I didn’t think we’d catch anything.” She struck the animal again. “You wanted to go fishing.” Her aim was unreliable but after half a dozen blows it stopped moving.
My father came out of the house when we pulled into the driveway. “How’d you go?” He looked into the bucket. “What the hell did you do to it?”
I have heard it said that the noble thing to do is eat only animals that you raise and kill yourself. It keeps you in touch with the rhythms of nature and allows you to feel superior to the people who buy their animal parts from the supermarket. But, watching my mother pour oil on the pieces of fish, I didn’t feel superior. I felt terrible. I was the one who wanted to go fishing. I wanted to be brave and, as a result, I had to watch the colour drain from this creature’s dying body. “Can’t we have meatloaf instead?”
My mother held the spatula in the air. “We killed it and now we have to eat it. You want me to give it to the dog?” Banjo locked eyes with her and wagged his tail. “He doesn’t appreciate anything.” Sitting down at the table, she stared gravely at her plate. “I really think we should say Grace.”
“We’re not saying Grace,” my father said, and so began a meal that was an exercise in determination rather than pleasure. Tiny bones made it difficult to eat, and Clayton needed help picking them out lest the fish avenge itself in death.
It is a wonder of human denial that these days I will happily eat a fish that has died at the hands of somebody else.
“Would you like one piece or two?” Adam asks. He uses one hand to turn the fish on the BBQ and the other to rub the belly of his baby daughter.
“Melena caught this one on the weekend.” He laughs at his own joke, imagining a baby reeling in a barramundi. Melena may not have caught the fish but she was certainly present when it was pulled in and gutted. I imagine Adam there, standing on the water’s edge, explaining to his baby in Polish and English everything he knows about fishing. Melena, with no concept of death or pain, thinks the hooks are for her and tries to put one in her mouth. “No, Melena,” Adam tells her. “You are not a fish.”
He takes out his phone and shows me a photo. In the background lies his haul, gutted and lined up on the grass. In the foreground he is holding Melena, one hand under her head and the other supporting her legs like a tail.
Nicole Crowe's fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines including Spook, James Cook University’s LiNQ, UQ’s Bumf, The Suburban Review, Stilts, One Book Many Brisbanes, Griffith University’s Talent Implied, and Cuttings Magazine. Spitting Distance is taken from her book-length work of humorous personal essays which, in 2015, was longlisted (top 21 out of 975 entries) for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. In 2012 she was awarded a UQ Varuna Publishers’ Fellowship for a fiction manuscript.
Photograph by Morebyless CC 2.0.