It’s a long thin journey there and back, like a curve of
fishing line arc-ing in the wind. With one end
anchored in the past – its wooden handline handle
wedged in the crack of the jetty and the other end
weighting baited for the future on the fathomy floor.
I could haul it in but the slack will always tangle and
knot. I could haul it in but the last of the line could
slice my fingers to the bone.
I used to love to drive these long roads before Jack was
born, when I was footloose, though full of fancy.
Even when Jack was little we would sometimes make
this trek, the rush of speed almost compensating for the
weeks of preparation and the hours of packing.
This time I packed nothing, walking from the house
with my handbag and keys. I stare straight ahead at the
arrowing road and try to remember what I am wearing
but fail, jeans probably and a t-shirt, sexless, ageless,
thoughtless clothes.What else is there? I can feel the
gridded rubber on the accelerator – no shoes. I can see
the pale band of skin on my wrist like a watch ghost,
an anti time tattoo. If I glance at my face in the
rearview mirror would I see anyone I know?
The car is like a running dream where you can’t move
fast enough, chased or chasing through a landscape
molten as honey.
No matter how fast I go I can’t out run myself.
I open the window to the roar of air then click a
random cassette into place, it’s one of Jack’s favourites,
bright and simple. It tightens my throat like a noose.
I punch it off and out and spin it through the window.
Then I panic.What if a day comes when I can bear to
hear it, when it is the only conjuring key to my
memories of him? I know the inertia of regret will come
slamming in if the momentum stops but I brake anyway.
The world comes to a halt then reverses.
I need it back.
It’s so unexpected that everything outside a speeding
car is real. Has it really stopped or is it still spinning so
fast that it appears motionless? I test the limping gravel
and the edgy bluemetal carefully with my bare feet.
The cassette lies undamaged (maybe the only thing) in
the dangerous middle.When I reach it I linger,
appearing motionless, carefully arching the camber into
my instep to feel the tarry warm. I don’t look left or
right for cars because what I don’t know can’t hurt me
anymore, it’s what I know that does me damage. I
return to the car where distance settles on me as
inevitable as dust and lock the tape away in the
glovebox like a gun.
This is where I have come.
Down along an evening beach where the fishermen
and fisherwomen and all the fisherchildren
throw their lines like stitches into the sea. Sewing the
sea to the sand like fancylace with barbed needles and
slanted uneven stitches (except along the jetty where
they are as straight and numerous as a buttonhole and
where the edge is decorated with sequin scales).
I find a space to try my hand, to sink my sinkers like
coins sewn in the lining, to sow my seed pearl floats on
the surface of the quilty sea, to patiently tension
(or pull though I know it puckers).
But still the fragile fabric pulls apart, coming adrift
under fingers and thimble thumbs until one by one all
the fishermen and fisherwomen and fisherchildren
unpick their work and spool their thread (the
sometimes smooth and sometimes catch), gather up
their beaded nets and boastful buckets leaving the
sequins scattered in the sand.
Down a bit and along a man walks in the scalloped
trim. He has hemmed the sea to his trousers and tries
to shake it free. He knows he shouldn’t walk so close
but rolls his reasons higher out of reach and carries on.
The seagulls smock and snip and avert their eyelets. So
often the sea is too close for comfort.
In the gauze dark small boats cut on the bias out
beyond the reef. In the silk dark I walk back fishless
and fancy free through the ruched grass and the felted
sky, past a sugary shop and a war memorial prickling
like a spine. Fastening my hooks and eyes I pin tuck to
bed to dream of fish bone needles and my fingers sewn
together like a fin and the in-out-in-out running
thread bucking like a live thing in my hand.
At night the silver net of light that rides the water
luminesces on the inside of my eyes like a silent movie.
In the morning it is different.With the jelly night just
set, the fisherchildren stay still and asleep, as curled and
dangerous as shellfish.
Only the industrious are up, trawling in the slick distance
– and me, sandy with sleeplessness.When we ventured
here as children my father always sewed our holiday boxes
in sacking against the water crossing.
His needle (as long as my hand) curved and flared like a
tiny silver tusk, goring through the rough fabric, raising
seams like scars that were proof against pilferers and salt
What would I catch today with such a hook, knotted with
jute and dropped unbaited in the clear deep?
Tiny fish wickedly impaled, medium fish edgy as tin, or a
giant fish, big as a torpedo with a frightery of teeth (or
nothing as usual but the tucks and darts of my childhood)?
The sea is too big for me and needs taking in.
Around the rocks the bay curves like a bodice cinching
and pinching with whalebone and pearlshell buttons
while the waves flounce and petty and are more my
size. Here I can master cast in secret, practising my
loops and swirls, retrieving my shortfalls and untangling
the snags and once, just once, feel the meaty muscle
weight of the whole sea pulling on my line then
cutting off with a sharply metalled mouth so close to
the surface that it rolls me backwards on the sand.
Soon the the sun is up and the beach will be full in the
hiving heat with children smallishly hauling at the
helpless sand and beating the cool out of the water, so I
retreat to a clam of shade and lick my salt and clean my
needles and whet my threadends in readiness.
Once when I was here, long ago, I caught a flip or two
of silver bream and reeled them rankling to my feet
where they twinkled and jewelled like christmas and
soon embroidered my breakfast. Still the memory of
that capture pulls at my fingers. But there again, a man
unpinned their mouths and cut them thinly with his
sickle scissors and cured them of their seaishness with
salt and vinegar.
Could I do it for myself, identify their tastiness, avoid
their poisons, free them from the disingenuous prawn?
Could I clean them lovingly and scale them ready for
bed? Could I cut them anonymously behind the gills
and fillet down along their backs, close but not
catching like the rattling of a stick along the bars?
(And necklace their pierced scales and tattoo their
names with bones and fan myself minutely with their
fins.) Of course, Haven’t I mastered everything else?
Haven’t I been doing everything (though nothing for
myself) for years?
This is all I know.
Things my father taught me, small gleanings like wood
shavings from his ship shaped timber. If I stand and spin
in the dizzying sand I will feel the strands of DNA like
spiders silk from the past, twisting and turning into me.
He reminded me once that none of my thousands of
ancestors died as children. Imagine all those exemplary
lives, carefully living long enough to pass on their genes
(in long twisty spirals like marionette strings directing
my every move). None of them ever died in childhood
until me, only I didn’t die in my own.
I wish I was born by the sea, living my life on and off a
splintery greywood boat with fishnets for stockings and
a sailcloth cloak, with my father’s seagoing genes and
hat. Singing fish into my boat like a castaway, or a
fishwife with cold wet kisses.
Jack could catch fish, they sensed a certain wateryness
in him and clustered round. My father said that fishing
and catching fish were two different things but to Jack
they were one and the same. He always caught fish,
they came to him, lured.
Up close, his eyes swam about like minnows behind
aquarium glasses.They were the shallow water kind, he
had no hidden deep, he always silted up and floated on
the surface. He had a nice life harboured from the
worst storms, a childhood deprived of nothing but
oxygen and he had a gift – a miracle of fishes. If he
swam (and he never did) he would curl up like a
comma with his air pumped down a tube and go back
from where he came, the sea of me, where he was safe
for a while until the day he went out with the tide.
Caught in the rip and suck of childbirth, following the
water down, he somehow misses the moment, that
miracle of birth where the head breaks the meniscus
and the lungs fire up and the holes in the heart that let
you live on your mother’s blood snap closed like shell
fish. Or he doesn’t lose the moment only mistimes and
comes gulping for air where there is none, drowns in
the backwash, sinks to the bottom. But he didn’t die.
The doctors saved him, pumped him full of air –
refloated him, and all things being equal they declared
him fit to sail. Only you can’t go down and back
without some sacrifices and Jack decided to stick to
safe and shallow from then on. I didn’t blame him, the
deep worried at me as well, but I envied him his trick
of fish while he had it.
I never had it but they often say that things can skip
the generations – rhythmically hopping over splice
ended genetic ropes.
N o t l a s t n i g h t
b u t t h e n i g h t b e f o r e
t we n t y f o u r r o b b e r s c a m e
k n o c k i n g a t my d o o r ,
I g o t u p t o
l e t t h e m i n
a n d t h i s i s w h a t
t h e y s a i d t o m e .
Grandpa also netted fish in his strong hands but he was
more an estuary man, half salty, half sweet, pulling his
babynamed boat up on the black grained ilmenite
beach not far from where I am now. I turn my back on
the distance and walk a careful line back to their once
It was a long car journey, 3 hours or 4 with stops,
fraught with carsickness and elbowed shuffling.
Hunchback packed, knockneed from chair back
kicking and dangerously shrill with are-we-there-yet?
voices. A sun creamed ferry crossing and an oily swell
sending a pram shooting like a cannon past and back
on its lanyard.Are we there yet?
At an uncertain, summer seaside town,CWA baked
fibro cottages resolutely retired and grimly backed to
We would tumble out of the feisty ferry like a circus
troop; the gang plank drumroll arrival, the
somersaulting children with fairy floss hair dodging
high flying tempers and the tired tamers with baby
lions growling in their sleep. I would run all the way to
the familiar house, back and check round the pointed
teeth of a small malevolent dog and throw myself into a
This was the house.
A treasury kitchen with dressersful of string and cards,
of coins and button, with preciously polished linoleum,
with a table set with care and cream and swirling
golden lustreware mugs of warm milk. A net covered,
dairy coloured, jammed and sugared farmhouse kitchen
retired to the sea.
A workroom, furniture ridden and plumply panelled
with books and on the wall a sewing sampler of our
family tree. I loved that epic embroidery on its likely
linen, the cross and stitched, the great and grand, the
ends knotted behind like clasped hands, the coloured
silks twisting and spinning into me.
Our room was a once upon a time verandah, long and
narrow minded with beds end-to-ended like an
epidemic and bubbled louvre windows cellophanely
shivering in the wind.
At night the heavy canvas awnings unfurled like sails
then sucked and bellied with the draught. In full sail
the room was as snug and sound dampened and safe as
The beds and bedding were the post war purchases of
bulk army auctions, blankets scratched and grey, hospital
sheets of thick white linen as cold as damp.
Back breaking mattresses lumped and hollowed, perfect
for small animal nest or children. I would cocoon to
sleep in the early dark with the next door kitchen
dimly ticking like a night clock. Sleeping then like I’ve
never slept since, rocking and crooning.
Up up in the Grandmother first morning I would
collect the holiday bucket, catch the rocking thump of
the screen door before it hit and skiptoe out into the
whispering garden. A Grandfather garden, urgently
green and inedible with rhubarb and silver beet, but
also lined with the lucrative cash crops of childhood.
Vine sided, straw bedded and lanterned with
passionfruit. I’d search for berried treasure, eat and fill
and swing the strawberry bucket breakfast back to the
table. After that I was free to roam, over the road,
wincing across the lawn that prickled like barbed wire
around the war memorial or running steeply down to
the tiny sugar countered shop. Sometimes I would stay
and sit at the work table, watching my Grandmother
who sewed, while I pricked the pads of my fingers or
cushioned the pins in my palm.
Sometimes I would go fishing.
Down I would go to the evening, balancing in the
beachy boat while my father scrunched it into the glass
green (where the sea hooked into the river mouth and
pulled it out). I never learned my lessons, of patience
and quiet calm, but would watch my Grandfather
pulling in the fish then false my nails with their scales
or coquettishly spread their fins or comfort them all,
dying breathlessly in the bucket.
Nothing and everything has changed, funny how so
many things can wash away leaving my childhood
shiny and intact like a pearl amongst the seedy weeds.
The garden too has gone fishing. Only the bellyup
boat, riding saw horses resolutely into the ground,
catches my fingers.The name, (my tiny maybe baby
name) SHELL still traces blockily along the bow. I lever
and turn until she tips dipsily up onto the ground and I
(to rock autistically on the bearable bottom, curled like
a comma, breathing stale tubular air like a diver).
We took a little Jack in this boat, holding him up like a
talisman, bagging his catch, handfeeding him my perfect
childhood, (mopping it as it dribbled down) and
pretended nothing mattered.
Not last night but the night before when I arrived, the
screen door rocked and thumped and fell off in my hand.
The house splintered into my fingers and reeled me in.
How long since I was here? 10 years maybe, with Jack
12 and heavy with baggage (breathing tubes and
aqualungs, glassy eyes and a swim bladder).The fish still
came to him but getting him to the water required man
handling.That’s why we stopped coming, the man
handler up and left, not because being the father of Jack
was getting harder but because he thought it was never
going to end.
David was the catch of the day, a perfect specimen.
I hooked him right here in this holiday town with a slick
of suntan that smoothed the water round me like a skirt.
I stood posing in a scallop shell which enticed him in
then clicked shut like a locket. He didn’t resist and he
didn’t fight so I reeled him in as pretty as you please.
My grandparents by then had retired to heaven and
handed the house to the next generation. I, by then, was
silkily sulkily bored with family holidays. I went to the
beach to practice drowning and to save myself.
After I had saved myself for David we married in a
breathless rush (with me inflating like a dinghy). Jack was
born not six months later on the crest of a wave which
dumped us broken onto the beach.To be fair he stayed as
long as he could stand, lying when he couldn’t stand, then
not bothering to lie, just dissolving into the horizon.
I hardly noticed, what with keeping things breathable.
This is what I became, lean mean and submarine,
checking the pressure and adjusting the dials, moving
like a shadow through the sea dark, sharing the stale
tubular air with Jack. I looked after him and before
him, avoiding wrecks and recognition, always keeping
one eye open. (lying floundered on the deep sea bed I
swear I could feel both eyes growing round to one side
of my head.)
Now I sleep the sleep of the dead, panicky and short of
breath, bothered by silence.
In my Grandmother’s cupboard is her sewing box.
I spread the filagree stuff on the table, the rustily sharp
and the tangled. I empty the fillet of needles and lightly
acupuncture the back of my hand. So many things she
could make with her hands, (tapestries and toys) and so
much time to do it in. My mother too had time for
lots of things. She even helped me with Jack when she
could, until she used it all up too soon.What happened
to mine? Maybe it is still here closed up and boxy in
the cupboard with my midriff tops and my trouble
shooting shorts. Maybe someone bottled it under
pressure in a hissing oxygen canister, tightly valved and
misty as dry ice.
In my Grandfather’s shed is his fishing box. It tackles
and tightens at my entry. I hang a diminishing chain of
hooks from my earring where they coldly catch my
cheek. Mothers should all be able to sew, mending tears
and rents with tiny invisible stitches. But it’s too late for
that so I take the fishing box and go down to the beach
where the fishermen and fisherwomen and all the
fisherchildren eye me sideways as I try to hook my
seadrowned son from the deep and draw him up to the
sand where he cannot sink or swim.
Not last night or the night before, but the night before,
night before, night before that I lay listening in my
sealess suburban house with the endless pieces of my
broken sleep knotted together, with the househum of a
hundred tiny motors, with the oxygen tanks coldly
sidling beside his bed.
Jack lived in fish years, in long slow waves of
childhood, while I grew old around him, carrying him
and laying him down though he was twice my size,
cleaning him and scaling him ready for bed, needling
him and monitoring his breathing. In the day as well
but every night his airways would falter and catch and
call me from my dreams again and again and again to
stop him drowning.
Skipping on my string of sleep that was snapped and
tied like shoelaces, twentyfour robbers came knocking
at my door and this is what they said to me.
“Stay under the surface. Let him swim.
You were never so good at fishing.”
Then they took him away.
Too late I catapulted from inertia to the floor.
This was my life forward and back, an endless line
paying out into the deep, so suddenly released by a
sharply metalled bite just under the surface that it
rolled me roughly to the ground.
My guilt spreads like an oil slick.
My relief is wickedly barbed.
Did I hear the hush of his breathing and turn away?
Burrowing back into my nested bed, just once, just
once let me sleep! Did I, onetime too many, wish to
cut him adrift, wrapped inside the quilty sea and sail
away unsnagged? I know I dreamed of a silver sided
fish that wriggled and jewelled like Christmas then
flipped back into a dimpled wave and swam away, while
all my ancestors, who scrimped and saved themselves,
who passed their DNA like a baton, who never died in
their childhood, rolled their bones.
The line has snapped, their catch has got away.
Funny how things under water are so close and large
you can’t see past them. Funny how fishing is so endless
it can take your whole life, then everything happens in a
finnish flash (while the rest of your life reels out,
reflecting endlessly underwater all ripply and blurred).
So quickly Jack was so gone he might have never been.
Everything sewed up and tie ended. Everything
removed as quick and efficient as gutting fish.
(Sharp sharp knife from tail tip up, neat and clean and
So quickly was I gone I might have never been, driving
the coast road fast, 3 hours not 4, (with only one minor
stop on the barefoot road) fraught and dangerously shrill.
Am I there yet?
Standing prowed on the feisty ferry wishing someone
would sew me up in sacking, proof against the bitings of
fishes and salt spray disintegration, then sink me into the
swell and tide me over.
Sometimes the sea is too close for comfort
I dream and dream in my pieces of sleep, of Jack curled
like a comma, down in the dimpled deep and every time
I dive to him and bring him up I breathe into his mouth
like a fishwife with cold wet kisses.
Heaven could be a lighthouse. How often did I see my
grandfather shining out of Jack’s face like a beacon?
Heaven would be a lighthouse full of fishermen (and all
the fisherchildren) that overlooks the rocks and wrecks
and black grained ilmenite beaches.
The place where I go to lay down my worry on the
wet sand and walk away.
This is where I have come.
Retreating to my holiday childhood to relearn my
Be patient, be fragile, don’t speak or tip,
throw the small ones back, don’t let the line go slack.
There are plenty more fish in the sea, leave them be.
In the house that still quietly ticks like a night clock
(my house now since my father, watered down and
weakly, couldn’t keep it up any more) I take down the
sampler of the family tree and prise it like an oyster
from its frame. I lay out all the coloured silks, clean my
needles and whet my threadends in readiness. Under
my (not baby) name which still traces blockily under
my fingers MICHELLE, I sew JACK’s letters with hard
learned patience and quiet calm.Then I attach a line of
fishhooks with parallels of stitches straight and
numerous as buttonholes.Then I embroider tiny fish
with blue and green and silver, then quilt around the
salty stains like bubbles.
In the silk dark I go, fishless, with the last of my line
broken and tied like shoelaces, with my hooks loosened
and seething to rust. In the velvet dark I rock away in
the babyname boat with my face pillowed on the sea
sampler and sleep for the first time until morning.