PORT FAIRY

(Extracts from Chapters 18 and 19 of ‘The
Archer’s Game’, sharing the best fish and chips with the best dad, and you.)

An American teacher arrives during my first year of high school. Recruited to meet an urgent
staffing shortage, he joins several new Australian teachers, as recent and exotic additions to our town. But it is not Mr Burton’s nationality that makes him outstanding. Retired from the navy, he
retains a passion for science, particularly astronomy and, while his anecdotes are as instructive as they are entertaining, his application of scientific principles to everyday things is what really intoxicates me. Burton is a bumbling, loud and excitable fellow, prone to distraction. Often his digressions take us far from the curriculum. A fortified breath is part of his jovial nature, and we accept his alcoholism beyond reproach.

The American space program is a regular feature on TV news, and a popular topic at school. Within weeks, we recite names of planets and, by the end of term, can identify many constellations. Burton explains the seasons, tides and lunar cycle, and many astronomical and geophysical phenomena, using clever games, competitions and songs as a way to include slower students in lessons. For me, science homework is pure pleasure, reclining in a deck chair with dad’s astronomy guide, binoclulars, and a torch on my lap, as I observe the tiny satellites around Jupiter. I have learned the names of lunar features on our own moon and I welcome its phases and curious effects on nature and my own being. I now know that auroras occur during fiery solar phases, when waves of plasma charge particles high in the polar regions of our atmosphere. When we discuss new theories about the foundation of our universe, I test these facts, adding them to the matrix of my understanding. New National Geographics supplement a rich diet of microscopic and telescopic detail, offering artistic impressions of ancient species, the formation of volcanoes, mountain ranges, seas and rivers.

Television documentaries and current affairs programs feature scientific developments, and Professor Julius Sumner Miller intrigues me with demonstrations of physics. Burton strays into every subject. He encourages artistry, geological collections, observations and reports, heated discussions about aliens and the ethics of atomic warfare. I am bitterly to learn he is will return next year. Rumours suggest the bottle has the better of him, but his legacy of scientific inquiry leads me to further exploration of dad’s bookshelves, and forays into the school and public libraries provides armloads of material.

One morning, late in autumn, the principal makes an announcement over the PA system, calling me to
his office. There, mum waits. ‘I’ve come to take you home,’ she tells me, her voice croaking with fatigue.

As we walk to the car, she explains: ‘Grandad has died. I think it’s best you come home.’
Her words have failed to sink in. ‘But mum, I sat with grandad this very morning at the breakfast, and he was as chatty and cheerful as usual.’ I disregard mum’s unlikely news, and remind her of the practicalities at hand. ‘What about my bike?’ ‘You can put it in the boot of the car.’

Later in the day, Nick arrives home from school by train, and our aunt and uncle drive down from Melbourne.

Ensuing days engulf us in a solemn bleakness, although its significance seems lost to me. I’ve tried to understand that
grandad has gone forever, and not just till next Christmas.
In an effort to satisfy my doubts, mum tells me how he died. ‘He was tidying his room after breakfast, and fell. We think he must have struck his head on the floor. There was a large bruise on his face. He didn’t wake up again.’

At the funeral, I am that puzzled my parents have arranged for his service to be held in a funeral parlour. I know grandad doesn’t like it here, and it certainly feels wrong to me. There are no stained glass windows for inspiration, and no pipe organ to dignify the coffin. Dad is seated beside me, clearly distressed and my heart aches to see him that way. Yet I know of nothing that will ease his misery. He remains quiet, his jaw tensing and his eyes welling with unspent tears. I am unable to fathom the depth of everyone’s misery. I can’t say goodbye to grandad when he’s still here.

As the funeral procession heads outside, mum stops us getting in the car. ‘A cemetery is no place for children,’ she insists, leaving dad in the consolation of others: his sister and cousins. I hold my tongue, out of respect, but a protest lodges in my throat, and tightens all through the dull afternoon.

In the evening, I sit in grandad’s cane chair on the veranda and weep, not because he has died, for I’m not miserable about that at all. I’m crying because everyone seems so sad, and the day has been so long and bleak. Grandad is here, attached to the other end of the silvery thread that’s fastened to my heart. He disapproves of all the soppiness, and tells me so.

Each day there are little things that speak of him: when I reach for the broom he has used to sweep the verandas; the hand mower that has begun to rust already beneath the tank stand; a morsel of toast on my plate. Each is a sign of his presence and the continuity of his love. I bury my nose in his shaving mug and peer over its rim to where the silky brush stands at attention on the shelf, like a blonde grenadier. Grandad is still here, he is just invisible, that’s all. Only, I’m at a loss to explain his disappearance to those who miss him.

***

Once we settle again and Nick returns to school, I notice an iciness developing between my parents. Coldness is usual, but this chill is new. Dad demonstrates a new steeliness towards mum, and the ensuing clashes produce strident arguments that spill through the house. I find it really upsetting. Once tension was about finances but, it seems, such matters appear to be merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Even though the meal table remains neutral, I sense constant tension and I don’t know how to help. My efforts to placate mum continue, but they work less well because she’s angry with dad, now, not me. And while Nick is away at school there are no fights, but I have relied on him for support when mum gets cranky. Now I feel doubly exposed and I’m afraid. I’ve tried humour but that back fires, and any effort at conversation proves volatile. I cannot explain the dynamics of what is happening, but I can see that my parents are behaving like people who do not like each other. Mum says this will be explained to me when I get older and, for now, there is nothing for me to be concerned about.
‘People can’t get on perfectly all the time, can they?’ She points out.
I am not sure what she means, exactly, perhaps it’s similar to when friends have a disagreement at school and snub each other for several days. Yet, with other’s help these tiffs rarely last. They always make up.

***

With grandad gone and summer holidays approaching, mum and dad decide to take separate breaks. The holiday decision makes sense, giving mum a real break from cooking and cleaning, but it still seems unfair for dad that he must return to the farm every few days to check on the cattle.
‘Can’t the neighbours help out, dad?’ I ask.
‘I’m sure they’d be glad to, but they have enough work of their own without taking on ours.’
Dad leans in the workshop doorway. He looks pale and tired. ‘So Nick and mum will manage the farm for a few days,
while we take a break.’
He says he has agreed to take me with him to Port Fairy, and that we will stay at the Star of the West hotel.
I suspect much of this is mum’s idea.

I recall Port Fairy from brief visits on Sunday drives. It’s about the same size as Terang only built along the river Moyne. This gives the town a more definitive purpose. I remember the cray and abalone fishing boats, moored alongside yachts in the river, and that there is a summer carnival, bringing families to stay in the camping grounds and caravan parks. Dad says the hotel is just a short walk from the shops and to one of several beaches offering a good swell for the surfers. He reminds me of the riverside walks and fishing jetties, and that there are plenty of picnic spots along the coast. Mum says that Port Fairy was one of the earliest settlements in Victoria and was even considered a site for a capital city. The town languishes during winter months, after all the holidaymakers depart. It seems like Terang, a service town, providing supplies for local farmers and the diminutive fishing fleet. The Star of the West is one of two central hotels, mum says. She’s been there for lunch on a craft outing with CWA friends.
‘It’s right on the intersection of the main streets, and only a short walk from the river and beach.’ She makes it sound enticing.

***

Christmas is subdued and soon after, dad and I set off for Port Fairy, arriving at the hotel well before dinnertime. Our adjacent rooms look out across a wide veranda, and we share a bathroom that has a huge bath and heavy basin the size of our laundry sink. The toilet is at the end of a long hallway, of heavy porcelain, with its cistern fitted high on the wall. I’ve never stayed in a hotel before and every detail intrigues and delights me. We stroll along the wharf on the commercial side of the river. The salted air and sourness of low-tide mud remind me of Lake Keilembete near our farm. Alongside the freezing plant there are crayfish boats moored on heavy ropes. Smaller craft line the jetties and fishing platforms. We study skiffs, motorboats and several luxury yachts, one with people aboard. The deck and mast are of oiled wood, with fittings of polished brass, and ropes neatly coiled. The sight makes my toy yacht seem dull and tacky. I admire the slim lines, the ropes, pulleys, portholes and sleek decks, and the way the sea breeze slaps fittings against the mast.

The water fascinates me, too. I like the sound of it lapping on wooden hulls, how it smacks and sucks at their sides, and draws the
vessels against old tyres and fenders. Ripples and wavelets spill over rocks, and on withdrawing reveal scuttling crabs, beached
flotsam, clumps of tangled fishing line, rope and scraps of old cray pots. Stepping down to a jetty, I peer at a mother-of-pearl
sheen on a patch of water. I can smell petrol. Dad says it’s from a fuel pump upstream, where boats refuel. While the water laps, it
gives me no clue of its current or direction. Sea plants drift back and forth, and barnacle-encrusted jetty pylons indicate tidemarks.
Other stains suggest the river rises much higher than now.
Dad answers my umpteenth question: ‘When there’s a king tide or a storm, the river rises over the wharf for a few hours.’
‘What about the houses?’ I study a row of cottages lining the riverbank in both directions.
‘I doubt it would get that high, pretty close, though.’
‘How come there are no houses on the other side of the river?’
‘I think that belongs to the fishing authority. See that dry dock. That’s where they winch the fishing boats up and repair them. There are houses further along. They go right up the hill and overlook the beach.’
‘Nice! That’s the surf beach, isn’t it?’
‘One of them. There are others, several coves safer for swimming.’ He points westward. ‘And there’s another camping ground there, too.’
‘May I go swimming tomorrow?’ I ask hopefully. ‘Yes. That would be nice. Let’s wait and see if it’s warmer, though. This wind has a chill to it and the water looks cold.’

We return to the hotel where dad instructs me to dress in my Sunday best for dinner. I see why when we enter the dining room where starched linen tablecloths and fine settings of silverware give an air of formality, history and sophistication. The waiter shows us to a table, and pulls out my chair, waiting for me to be seated. Next, he unfolds a huge starched napkin and places it upon my lap. Handling me a menu the size of a folio, he and asks, ‘What would the young lady like to drink?’
I’m unsure how to reply and look to dad. He smiles, and orders a glass of cider for me, and a beer for himself.
After the waiter departs, I ask: ‘Why does he make such a fuss? I’m only a kid.’
Dad assures me it’s part of dining room etiquette. He studies the menu, and suggests I try the pea soup. ‘I know it’s not pea soup weather,’ he explains, ‘but your mother recommends it.’
The waiter returns to take our order and dad requests half a serve for me of the soup, with roast
beef to follow, and steamed pudding for dessert. I roll my eyes in delight. The soup arrives in large bowls seated upon even larger
plates. At least I know which cutlery to use and, following dad’s lead, and adjust the serviette on my lap. During the meal,
it keeps slipping to the floor. Finally, dad suggests I fold it in half. There it sits like a picnic blanket. The soup is
everything mum promised, full of creamy peas, shredded ham and rich flavourings from a country garden. After emptying the bowl, I
notice crisp bread rolls. Dad takes one, breaks it apart with his fingers and butters it. I follow his example, scooping a curl of
dewy butter from a silver dish. We don’t talk much as we’re unused to dining together this way. For me such cuisine is a banquet and I struggle to do it justice. I try mustard on my beef, and I chide myself afterwards for having avoided it for so long.

The huge plates are filled with generous portions and I can’t possibly finish my vegetables. Next is dessert: a rich wedge of steamed pudding lies beneath a blanket of glossy custard. I probe for three-penny pieces, as is our family tradition.
Dad chuckles. ‘Don’t think you’ll find any. Might seem like it, but it’s not Christmas pudding.’
I laugh, embarrassed. ‘Well it feels like Christmas.’ I chat brightly now and dad looks so stately in his
Sunday suit, smiling more than I can remember. He orders another pot of beer and says the elegant surroundings remind him of days when he dined well, a rare extravagance now, with his frugal lifestyle.

I struggle to fold my serviette. ‘Don’t worry about that, dear. You don’t clear up, and they’ll give you a clean napkin for breakfast. Just leave it beside your plate. You’re on holidays, enjoy it; no work and lots of fun.’

After dinner, we head upstairs and sit back in wicker chairs upon the broad balcony. Restlessness draws me to the wrought iron balustrade, and I gaze out as dusk settles over the town. Couples stroll, peering in shop windows. A group of hotel patrons burst into the sober evening, and set off jovially. The day is replete and I feel such contentment and pleasure, and tell dad so. He remains silent. The sounds of day hush into evening, surf pounding the beach, just as it will throughout the entire night.

***

I wake to a gentle tap on my door.
‘Yep. I’m awake,’ I call, yawning deeply and stretching beneath the crisp linen. I pad wearily down the hall to the toilet, but scuttle
back to dry my hands when a door opens further along the corridor.

After a breakfast of porridge, eggs and bacon, toast and creamy milk in a very posh glass, dad suggests we go for a walk to
Griffith Island. While I ready myself, he makes a brief phone call to see how things are going on the farm and reports that all is
well.

As we make our way along the riverbank, I think about our destination. ‘What’s at the island, dad?’
He sighs. ‘Lots of things. A lighthouse for one. And mutton birds.’
‘Mutton birds!’ I repeat the phrase, puzzling at it, and then begin to skip as dad lengthens his stride.
I pull at his hand. ‘So, tell me about these mutton birds.’
‘They’re sea birds, and they live in burrows on the island. Most especially, they spend half the year away, and fly as
far as Japan and the Arctic Circle.’
Now, I know from my National Geographics that such a flight covers an enormous distance. ‘You’re kidding. Why would they fly so far?’
‘Don’t know, dear. But scientists have tagged and traced them, so it’s true.’
‘But that’s so far away! Why would they fly so far when there’s plenty here?’
‘I suspect they’ve been doing it for generations. Probably a family tradition. Perhaps they like the weather there, or they’re
Japanese!’
‘Ha-haa!’ And dad lets go a giggle, too.

There are people fishing from one of the jetties as we pass. I pause in wonder. There is so much I don’t know about my dad.
‘Have you ever fished?’ I ask. ‘Oh, once or twice when I was a lad.’
‘Is it fun?’
‘Yes. Yes, indeed.’
I have never been fishing, nor have I seen fishers closely before. I watch the lad cast his line out into the stillness of the river. There is a small white float at the end.
‘What’s that white thing for?’
‘To keep the bait above where the fish feed. Then, when they nibble at it, the float bobs up and down. You watch.’
We wait a few minutes but nothing happens. ‘Catching much?’ dad calls to the father and son.
‘Na, not much. They’ve gone off, I think. Missed the tide,’ the father replies.
‘High tide brings fresh water into the river,’ dad explains, anticipating my question. ‘And that brings food and fish. And when it goes out again, the fish go with it, I suppose.’
Sea flowing into a river. How odd that sounds.

We arrive at the causeway, and pause again. ‘Now,’ dad points. ‘See out there? Across that litter of black rocks where heavy surf churns. That’s the old river mouth. Way too rough for fishing boats, so they dredged out a new river mouth over there.’ He indicates the new river, heading out through a causeway to the sea. ‘And they built this wall to block off the old river mouth.’ I gaze at the boiling ocean.

Beyond the rocks two surfers ride long boards, tucking under the curls, and looping out over the crests just before their wave founders.
‘But, isn’t that a bit dangerous?’
‘Yes. Of course. That’s why they do it. The thrill of danger, the speed of the waves and the danger of the rocks.’
‘Is it hard to learn?’
‘Well, it looks hard enough. Probably like learning to ride a bike. Balance and co-ordination.’
‘Mmm,’ I agree. ‘And knowing how to swim.’ I add, shielding my eyes as I squint at the madmen.
‘Are there sharks?’
‘Oh, yes. Fishermen catch them. And abalone divers have near misses, too, so I’ve read.’
‘What’s abalone?’
‘A shellfish that clamps onto rocks. When you remove the fish, the shell makes a beautiful mother of pearl dish. We might see some out here on the beaches. I’ll point one out if we do.’
‘Is it nice to eat?’
He smiles. ‘I think it is an acquired taste, a bit like brains,’ and grins. ‘But the Japanese love it. That’s where most of it is sold.’

Beneath us the ocean surges through the stones of the causeway, making a glooping sound like water emptying from a bottle. On the seaward side, river water streams down a brief lick of sand and into the ocean, where mounds of half-rotted kelp lie strewn by heaving seas. Then I notice the kelp at my feet.
‘How’d that seaweed get up here?’
‘Waves often wash over the causeway. See?’ He points to the far river bank. ‘There’s kelp on that walkway, too, see? A good reason never to turn your back on the sea. Freak waves can catch you unawares. Down Port Campbell way, and further up the coast, towards Portland, people have been washed off the rocks that way.’
I decide that the surfers are quite mad. Yet I feel pangs of envy, too: that they are game to face such danger in order to enjoy the thrill of their sport. We leave the path and step out over a swathe of black boulders littering this side of the island.

Eventually we reach the dunes, and follow a tired trail through wind-blown tussocks and pig-face. The sea breeze has freshened and I’m glad of my coat. We approach a small hollow in the ground. ‘Rabbits!’ I declare.
‘More likely mutton birds.’
‘Really!’ I had expected their nests to be higher, on hillsides or cliff-faces, not scattered in this pathetic excuse for a dune. The
whole island seems little more than rocks and dunes at best. ‘But they’re not even lined,’ I insist.
‘They don’t need to be, dear. They just dig the burrows and lay their eggs, usually only one. Look.’ He indicates bones with the toe of his shoe. ‘A mutton-bird chick. Foxes and stray dogs take them.’

I walk on glumly. We continue round the seaward side of the island, stepping carefully along an ill-defined track through a maze of burrows. Some are quite exposed, others tucked under tussocks and shiny leaf bushes. Ahead, a small cove provides some shelter and reprieve from the basalt-strewn shore. I spy rock pools and scurry over to them, discovering colourful shells fastened to the stone, and small crabs and starfish; even an occasional minnow. Fish fascinate me and I dart from pool to pool, leaving dad seated on kelp littered sand, where he gazes seaward. Behind us lies a small crater, a lava vent; its black, basalt sides falling, perpendicular, into the green-tinted pool. The water looks very deep and the basalt appears unweathered, rising hard and high, like a fortress. The pool tantalises, so close but inaccessible.

Dad prises himself up stiffly and brushes sand from his trousers.
‘Where does all this black rock come from, dad?’
‘It was once a lava flow from a volcano.’
‘But there’s no volcanic cone.’
‘Oh…’ He thinks for a moment. ‘There’s another one, further round the island. I think they’re part of the Tower Hill’s eruptions. Remember we passed Tower Hill on the way here?’
‘Yes! So, lava spilled out into the sea?’
‘Well, Yes, but I can’t say where the shoreline was ten thousand years ago.’
‘True.’ But it was more than true. It was stunning to consider this coastline was so recent. I follow dad through another range of mutton-bird burrows, stepping over carnage a half dozen times.
‘Where are the birds, dad?’
‘Out fishing, probably around Lady Julia Percy Island.’
‘Where’s that?’
He points behind us, over the surf. ‘You can’t see it from here, not today. There’s too much haze.’
‘When do they come back?’
‘In the evening, at sunset.’
‘Can we come back and watch them?’
‘Yes. All right. I’ll get fresh batteries for the torch, too.’

After clambering over another field of basalt, we approach a lighthouse, visible above a grove of shiny leaf and tea tree. We pass ruins of the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, now a circle of rubble, with a broken sandstone chimney. Geraniums have continued European habitation. We step onto a short causeway and approach the lighthouse, a brilliant white tower with the most dramatic of ocean backdrops. Beyond it, the sea seems to pile up over reefs, rising higher, seemingly well over our heads, and breaks on the basalt foundations in a storm of white foam and spray, and with a reverberation that shakes the ground.

The door of the lighthouse is locked and there is little do but climb over rocks and watch the ocean.
‘No surfers here, dad,’ I call over the din.
‘Now that would be madness!’ He sits down on the sea wall.
I realise I’m plaguing him with questions. ‘I’ll explore a bit, if that’s okay?’
He nods and I head for the cottage ruins, and begin raking the sand. How anyone could walk passed ruins like this and not scrounge for evidence of its history; there has to be some clue as to how the occupants lived? I find numerous shards of weathered blue glass, and unearth some pieces of dinner plates, cups and saucers. Seated on my haunches, I try to imagine who might have visited here for afternoon tea a hundred years earlier, and who was here to receive them? What was it like to live here all year round, climbing the lighthouse stairs to maintain the lamp through the violent winter gales and storms that rack this coast? What a miserable place for a family to live, but how delightful the summers, with fresh fish and a beach on the doorstep.

Dad appears beside me. I can tell I have been gone awhile for my skin is smarting from the sun. Our island curves back across a shallow bay to a causeway by the new river mouth. As we cross the beach, archaeological trinkets jangle in my coat pocket. Here the shore is sheltered by dunes that tower over us like surf. Stepping onto the causeway, we head out to the point, where small light is affixed to a pylon, signalling the entrance. We are exposed to the full blast of the wind, and the ocean rises against the causeway wall, the roll of water sucking the stones like the bow of a ship.

All the way back along the causeway, we see evidence of human carelessness: tangled, discarded fishing line, hooks, cigarette
butts, discarded bait shells and strands of fish guts, gull-picked and festooned with glossy flies. Dad explains how the causeway lies across ocean currents, making the river mouth silt up. He reckons the dredging barge we pass is fighting a losing battle. It
certainly looks like a battler, rusted, listing, and moored by heavy, weathered ropes. It had been operating this morning, and has
deposited a foul-smelling slurry of sand and mud into a tidal lake on the island.

We pass the second lava vent, more accessible than the first, but it’s lunchtime and dad says we must be getting back.

At the wharf, we pass a noisy warehouse cool room. A fishing boat unloads its crates of crayfish.
‘What’s crayfish like, dad?’ He thinks for a bit. ‘Might be best if you try. It’s a bit hard to describe. It might be on the menu for dinner. Now, what do you want for lunch?’
‘What is there?’
He indicates a doorway leading into a fish shop beside the warehouse. ‘Let’s get something here and eat it at one of those benches along the river. What do you think?’
‘No need to ask. You know I love fish and chips.’
Dad orders flake, chips and a couple of scallops. ‘And two potato cakes,’ he adds, smiling down at me. ‘I’m feeling pretty peckish. It’s almost two o’clock, you know. While we’re waiting, let’s go over to the public toilets and wash our hands.’

On our return, the meal is ready. While dad pays, I reach for the roll of hot newspaper, with my nose already hovering at the end. ‘Mmm. Quick! Not sure I can wait!’

We stop at The Point, where the new and old rivers meet, and arrange our lunch on a picnic bench facing the water, with Norfolk Island pines towering at our backs. Dad unwraps the parcel, spreading it out between us. Inside the greaseproof paper lie exquisite morsels: the chips are large and crisp, their tips golden brown and sandy with salt. I burrow in and find the scallops, peeling them away gently. Dad squeezes lemon on a piece of battered fish.
‘Mmm,’ he sighs, chewing impatiently, managing few words around the hot food. ‘Nothing better than fresh fish. This flake melts in your mouth. How’s yours?’
My hands are too small to manage an entire slab. After seasoning with lemon, I break the fillet into pieces. ‘What does a flake look like? I checked that chart on the shop wall; there was whiting, hake, flathead and flounder, but no flake.’
‘It’s shark.’
I frown. ‘What?’
His words were muffled over a mouthful of chips. ‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘Flake is another name for shark.’
I lick my lemony fingers. ‘You mean shark, as in the big fish with all the teeth and the fin and everything?’
‘Fishermen catch them while they’re waiting for their craypots.’
I regard my meal with new respect, and lift a portion of the fish to my mouth, biting into it with mock savagery and accompanying snarls.
Dad laughs. ‘It’s delicious, isn’t it?’
My legs swing beneath the bench, and I glow with contentment.
Dad unearths another wedge of lemon and we eat quietly, watching a flock of seagulls gather, bickering and pacing at our feet. Eventually we toss them our scraps and watch them squabble. ‘No table manners at all,’ I declare.

We amble back along the river to the hotel. At the corner of the main street, dad calls me into an electrical store for batteries, and then to the newsagents for a paper. He offers to buy me a comic, an adaptation of The Black Tulip, that I’m perusing.
He’s well aware how mum disapproves of them. She tells me comics are rubbish, just like cartoons. As an afterthought, dad buys two choc wedges, and we sit on a bench in the street, eating them. Dad bites pieces off his ice-cream while I peel off shards of chocolate coating from mine, before starting on the creamy vanilla heart.
‘Well,’ says dad, as we climb the stairs to our rooms. ‘You’d better have a rest, and a wash, I think.’
I look at him in disbelief.
He laughs, pointing at the front of my coat. I peer down. Melted chocolate has lodged on a buttonhole.
‘And there’s more round your mouth. Go and have a wash. And it’ll be a late night if we’re going to see the mutton birds, so have a snooze.’
‘But I’m not tired, dad.’
‘Don’t worry. Just lie on your bed and read. I’ll tap on the door for dinner. We have to be on the island before sunset.’

***

(BRAIM HOUSE
Courtesy of: http://vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/search/nattrust_result_detail/69377)

WAVES

It’s surprising how easily sleep drifts in with only a few pages read. I wake with a start, wondering for a few moments where I am. The sound of the ocean reassures me and I doze again, waking to dad’s gentle tap on the door. ‘Come on, sleepy,’ he calls.
After another quick wash, I dress for dinner and meet him at his door. ‘Ready.’
On his bed he has laid out things we’ll need for our expedition.

There is no crayfish on the menu, so we order roast chicken, with fruit and custard for dessert. Dad finds the wishbone and says he’ll save it so we can break it later, for good luck.

We change into warmer clothes. I wear my school shoes and the woollen coat I wear to the footy. Dad drives us to the causeway and leads the way across to the island, stepping carefully where burrows have undermined the path. Shafts of sunlight leave the basalt all bloody and gild the lips of each wave, turning the foam a deep pink.
‘Look, Jo!’ Dad points across the swell. ‘See that long flat shape in the middle of the water?’
I scramble up beside him and follow his arm, nodding when I spot it.
‘That’s Lady Julia Percy Island, where the mutton birds go each day.’
The island reminds me of a long barge, sitting low in the water. Its cliffs seem vertical and, at this distance, any details are lost in a haze of spray.
‘Come along,’ dad urges. ‘Let’s find some shelter before dark.’

We cross a maze of tracks, reaching a low clump of shiny leaf.
‘Here’s a good spot. The birds won’t see us and it’s sheltered from the wind.’
I settle down to wait, unsure of what to expect.
Dad shines his torch about. There are burrows right up to our feet.
‘Some might not be in use,’ he says.

The last surfers step carefully over the field of boulders leading up to their vehicles, parked on the look out. They look like seals in
their wet suits; with odd-shaped fins where they hang undone. With sunset comes an anticipated lull in the wind and the stench of kelp rises, with tangy iodine wafting from warm rocks. The sea dominates the horizon, generating sets of waves that tower above us, tumbling into the reef with a deafening roar we can feel through our feet. Seagulls scatter.

I peer at island. A grunt and nudge from dad confirms something is happening. There’s a vague smudge growing darker and closer, vibrating and sketchy. I distinguish the movement of wings and soon a distinct cry. We sit transfixed, stiffening in the cold, as the first birds wheel overhead, scooping low over our hide before sweeping back out to sea. As more arrive, the sky fills with swooping wings and cries, flying so close I can hear the air over their feathers.
‘How come they don’t collide?’ I call over the din.
Dad eyes never leave the sky. ‘Perhaps some do.’
There’s a sound behind us, a rustle and flapping of wings. We turn slowly. Only yards away a bird lands, inspects her nest and regards us with suspicion. Never the less she enters her burrow. There is more commotion as other birds alight nearby. All around the air fills with fluttering, scolding mutton-bird cries. Impossibly, more birds arrive, gliding in on thermal currents, each bird circling
several times before landing.
‘What are they doing in the burrows, dad?’
‘Disgorging fish for their chicks. That’s why they fish all day, stocking the larder for the kids.’
I sit back, huddled against the freshening breeze, in my coat, awed by the extraordinary sight. The sea has becomes
phosphorescent, its white foam bright as starlight. The breeze warms, rises, returning the day’s heat to Bass Strait.

After almost an hour, we ease ourselves up and seek a path amongst the burrows. The tussocks are alive with imperative cries from hungry chicks and snarling neighbours. And birds still arrive from the voluminous night. They’re sleek birds, dark-feathered from what I can see, with faces like penguins. Upon reaching the causeway, we pause to look back, seeking a context to the spectacle. The ocean thunders. No wonder it’s so clear from my room. The tide has risen, too, and waves envelop the base of the causeway, retreating again before another onslaught.
‘Come on, dear,’ dad calls. ‘It’s late.’

***

‘Any plans for today?’ I ask dad, as we head downstairs for breakfast.
‘Well, we haven’t explored the dunes or the east beach yet. Let’s head over the footbridge and take a look.’

There’s quite a sting to the sun, welcome after the gloomy, wet Christmas. As we cross the footbridge, I peer over the railing, immediately spotting a school of silvery minnows near a pylon. We walk further on, following a dead-end road passed several houses and the dry dock. A fishing boat is propped on scaffolding, its hull daubed with undercoat. There is no-one about and we take a closer look. I’m amazed at the size of the boat seems, the breadth of its hull and the weight of it.
‘It looks so clumsy out of the water, doesn’t it, dad?’
He agrees, and walks round the craft, inspecting it himself.

We continue further along the river bank until a cyclone fence forces us to change direction. Soon the asphalt is swamped in sand,
becoming a dirt track, and scrub closes in overhead. We arrive at the beach quite unexpectedly and, with a shriek of delight, I slip
off my shoes and socks, and bound to the water’s edge. As I wade into the shallows, wavelets break over my feet, speckling them in foam. It is warmer than I expected. Farther down the beach, the swell picks up, driving clean waves across the curve of the bay. There are groups of people sun baking, swimming and playing cricket on the sand, while surfers follow the swell into shore.
‘I want to try that!’
Dad approaches the water’s edge, and stands beside my shoes. ‘Do what?’
‘Surf. Like that.’ I step forward, keen to see them better.
‘Don’t go out too far. Those waves can be tricky. There may be an undertow.’
I turn back, with water churning around my legs, beckoning me to play. ‘See those people surfing?’
He nods, looking across at them.
‘Well, may I try that?’
He looks uncomfortable. ‘I know you swim in the pool, Jo, but surfing is another thing entirely.’ He squints under the blade of his hand. ‘You’ll have to stay between the red flags, where the life-savers are on watch.’
It looks crowded there, but I decide it is better than nothing. ‘Okay. Will you swim with me?’
‘Perhaps for a little while. It’s still quite cold, though. How about this afternoon?’
‘Okay. Let’s walk over and watch the kids.’

A single dune rises as we follow the beach, forming a cliff above the swimmers. Several ramps traverse the slope and at the base of the second, is a sign. “Body Boards 20 cents per hour.” Beside it lies the most tanned European man I’ve ever seen, lying on a banana lounge, dressed in black Speedos, with sunglasses and a white daub of zinc cream across his nose.
‘That bloke’s been coming here for years,’ says dad. ‘He lies there all day hiring boards. All summer long.’
‘Does he surf?’
‘The only time I’ve seen him get up is to tell kids their hour’s finished.’
We continue our walk, stepping round discarded towels and sandals, avoiding the cricket match and beach umbrellas lurching in the
wind. The atmosphere reminds me of city beaches: Black Rock and St. Kilda, in the thick of summer, and the most hectic days at the Terang pool. Across the broad expanse of sand, whole dynasties crowd beneath awnings flapping vigorously in the wind. I have never expected to see so many people in such holiday spirit. They’re not just from our district, either. I catch foreign phrases and accents in the babble. Beyond the flags, blokes sit back in fold-up canvas chairs, with eskies between them, and bottles of beer half buried in damp sand. Local farmers and tradesmen, their ears glued to a cricket broadcast squawking over the crowd from a scattering of transistor radios.

Along the shoreline, mums and kids guide toddlers on their first steps into the sea. Further along are beachcombers, studying the high tide line intently, their faces bowed in search of shells and driftwood. Exuberant kids bolt passed us to the water’s edge, diving into a wave, and swimming furiously out to the surf. I want a holiday like this, with long days of games and swimming. I study body surfers paddling out through the waves on inflatable mats, their eyes on the swell. As the waves form, they
kick into a trough, grip their boards and slice into the face of the expanding water, just like the surfers we watched yesterday.

Dad interrupts my reverie. ‘Time for lunch?’
We climb the ramp, passed the surf club, and into the car park. From here I see how the coast stretches east, curving passed Tower Hill towards Warrnambool. ‘Is there beach all the way to Warrnambool, dad?’
‘Looks like it, doesn’t it.’ He shields his eyes. ‘There’s a rocky outcrop at Killarney, near Tower Hill, but I think its beach all
the way to the Merri River and that’s in Warrnambool.’

There’s an ache in me for this place, a feeling like home, a calling.

We head down the hill back into town, and cross the river via the traffic bridge. The water is reedy here, silted and smells sour. The river seems to just wander off, losing its way in marshes.

For lunch dad suggests sandwiches. ‘Then we won’t have to wait so long before swimming.’
Which is all I can think about. ‘I hope you’ve got your bathers, dad!’

After a brief rest upstairs, I slip into mine, and pull a summer dress over them. I meet dad out in the hall at two o’clock, as agreed. He carries keys. ‘We’ll drive down.’ He glances at my bundle of beach things. ‘Did you remember underwear?’
‘Why?’
‘There are showers at the car park. You can rinse there. Keep sand out of the car. You’ll need your toilet bag, too.’
I grab the extra gear and wrap them in my towel. Then I realise I have no money. ‘You wouldn’t have twenty cents for a body board would you?’
He rattles change in his pocket. ‘No problem.’

I discard my dress at the car, self-consciously wrapping my towel around like a sarong, before following dad down the ramp. He’s wearing Speedos and has a towel slung over his shoulder. His legs are like two snow gums, lanky and pale; like grandad, he doesn’t wear shorts much.

We’ve gone down the wrong ramp for the surf mat guy, and make our way through swarms of families to his stall. Dad asks him for a board.
‘For yourself, is it?’ the bloke asks. I realise he has two sizes.
‘No,’ saya dad. ‘For my daughter here.’
The man addresses me, now. ‘Ever used one before, love?’ His skin is as tanned as mum’s best gloves, and I can smell
suntan lotion.
‘No.’ I panic. Maybe I have to take lessons.
‘How about a smaller one to start out on then, eh? These biggies are a bit long for you to manage first up.’ He reaches for a
disappointingly small mat. But he’s right, after all. ‘And it’ll cost you only half as much!’
I look to dad. He nods for me to take it.
‘Once you get used to the waves, you’ll manage a bigger ones, love.’ The bloke pokes his zinc-clad nose at the surfers. I smile a
reply, unused to the familiar way he speaks. ‘Stay between the flags, now,’ he calls after me.
I nod, and scurry after dad to the shore.

‘Here.’ Dad reaches for my bundle of clothes. ‘I’ll take your things. I’ll have a quick dip in the shallows. Water’s too cold for me.’
I hesitate.
‘You go on, though, dear. I’ll keep an eye on you from here.’

My inflated, orange and blue striped mat has two handles and is heavier than I expect, but it floats well. I wade in, striding out to deeper water, and paddle through the first set of waves. I get a face full of water and rise, spluttering and scrubbing my eyes. I must watch for jellyfish and lurking shadows. Sliding onto the mat the way I’ve seen the boys do, I find it easier to direct, paddling over the next set and out further. Beyond me a row of bronzed surfers sit astride their boards.

The next set is bigger. I paddle over the first crest as most of the surfers disappear. I watch their heads and arms vanish beyond the wave. Beyond them I search for dad on the beach. He’s leaning back on his towel, watching. The water rises again, and I kick forward, catching the fat lip of a wave, but miss it. With the next, I lean forward on the mat and the curl catches me. I slip down face of the water too fast, and plough into the churning soup of sand and foam. Nothing has prepared me for this. I surface, gasping and shocked, one hand still gripping my mat. As I peel my wet hair off my face, I wave at dad, grinning, to let him know I’m okay.

Turning seaward again, I wade through foam ahead of the next line of breakers. Reviewing what I’ve learned, I let the first wave go and watch how the second one builds. It begins to break, lifting me across its shoulder. I let it pass. The next wave is mine and it’s sensational. I tip into the curl perfectly, and direct my mat down the broad face of water. Exhilarated by the speed, I follow the
wave right in to shore, well east of the flags. Getting up I wave triumphantly to dad.

As I paddle back out, I practice maneuvering, crossing the face of two breakers, diving beneath them as they roll over me. Dad signals for me to come in, tapping his watch. After the next wave, I head inshore, dragging the mat reluctantly behind me. He reads my disappointment. ‘How about another hour?’
‘Yes please,’ I gush guiltily. ‘That last one didn’t seem like an hour, more like fifteen minutes. Are you sure you don’t mind sitting
here, though?’ I feel guilty at his waiting for me.
‘Not at all. You can manage well enough so I’ll have a snooze. I’ll let you know when the hour’s up, okay?’
‘Thanks so much, dad.’ He hands me a coin and I turn, navigating back through the throng, to pay the board guy.
‘No worries, love,’ he smiles. ‘You’re doing well.’
Delighted, I race back to the water and throw myself down on the mat, heading out passed the breakers.

***

That evening there are three pink, smarting triangles across my back.
‘We forgot the sun-cream, didn’t we,’ dad apologises. ‘Got any cream with you?’
‘I’m only twelve, dad. I don’t use makeup.’
‘Well, you’ll need something on that.’ He checks his watch. ‘The milk bar should still be open. I’ll go now. They’ll have something.’ He returns with a pink jar and offers to apply it. ‘Here, the shopkeeper says it’s good, that it won’t stop the sting, but will put some moisture back into it and stop it peeling.’
I’m curious. ‘Dad, how come that man hiring the boards isn’t burned, just really tanned instead?’
‘Years of exposure, I s’pose. Every summer for years.’ ‘Here.’ He hands me the jar. ‘You can do the rest.’
I laugh. ‘Tough job being a parent, isn’t it.?’
‘Oh, it’s not so bad.’ He wipes his hands on his handkerchief. ‘I think we’re managing fine, don’t you?’
‘We’re having a wonderful holiday, dad. But I am wondering if you’d like a bit of time on your own, that’s all. Do we have to go home tomorrow? It’s so soon.’
He sighs. ‘That’s the deal. But we can do it again, can’t we?’
I begin to apply cream to my legs. ‘Maybe for a week next time?’
‘Perhaps. Let’s see how the others manage, first.’

Following breakfast we pack and tidy. Then, after a brief stroll by the river, we set off home, early enough so that mum and
Nick have time to drive back here and take over our rooms. Dad takes us via the south beach. We pass new houses and a camping
ground, before returning to the highway.

We arrive home for a late lunch. Nick’s been waiting at the milk stand by the road, and races his bike ahead of us. I feel an odd sense of guilt, coming back here. The farm seems different somehow, a bit distant, really dry and ragged. As we unpack the car, mum and Nick pack their gear in, and depart soon after.

Next evening mum phones from Port Fairy. She says the weather has been cooler, no good for the beach; and that they’ve been exploring old houses and public buildings. ‘We’ve discovered a rather glum looking two-storey house, huddled at the front of a street next door to a church. And it’s for sale,’ mum adds. ‘Its roof is rusty, the window-frames weathered and the gutterings leak down the walls.’ She says she’s arranged an inspection with the agent. Then she asks to speak to dad. I can tell she’s describing the house, and watch as he becomes really agitated.
‘It’s dilapidated,’ he tells me afterwards. ‘All the rooms need urgent attention. Who knows what the stairs are like, and the bathroom’s just a lean to. There’s no sewerage connected. Your mother reckons the place has potential,’ he snorts, shoving
his plate onto the sink. He adds water to the teapot. ‘The last house she bought was the same. And guess who did most of the
fixing? And, when she sold it, I didn’t see a single pound!’ He sighs. ‘But at least it was in Terang, not an hour and a half by
car like this one.’ Dad heads outside to move the hoses in the vegetable garden. When he returns, he is much calmer.

In mum’s absence I manage the house, cooking meals for both of us. And it’s not as easy as it looks, either. I’ve prepared meals before, but haven’t had to plan for them. The hardest part is getting all the food cooked and ready at the same time. That really takes planning and some of my efforts are disappointing. But it’s amazing how a dollop of chutney can transform a chop, and fresh pepper and butter restore over-cooked beans. However, there is little I can do to save the over-salted potatoes. I decide to abandon mum’s style of cooking all together, and follow my own instincts. Curry is my first success, and I cook the porridge with milk for creaminess and sweetness, but egg yolks continue to break unfailingly whenever I cook them. Desserts are easy as our tastes are simple. And with the orchard at our doorstep, we finish meals with slices of apple and cheese, mulberries and cream, or fresh-picked apricots broken in halves, juicy and warm from the sun.

Cleaning is tedious and I loathe the ironing, one chore mum often leaves for me. Dad says he doesn’t mind his shirts unironed, but some things must be done. Using a table makes the job more difficult, and the space has invited clutter. Mum’s pottery tools are encroaching and she’ll need space for her wheel soon. Now it’s cluttering up the veranda. After the frustration of ironing, I give the laundry a thorough clean, and discover the source of a lingering stink: emptying the offending bucket of starch down the drain. Vacuuming is easy. I don’t see what all the fuss is about, and by sweeping the floor each day, there’s less work in the long run. With my chores done, and a fresh game of archery completed, I offer dad some help. He sets me the delicious task of picking beans and peas.

Since our trip to Port Fairy, dad is chattier and shares his evenings with me. At the end of each day he plays records, with the
turned volume up much louder than mum would tolerate. He explains to me, ‘You must have the music playing as loud as a real orchestra in the room.’
And that seems perfectly sensible to me, letting the sounds soaks in, so they make me shiver.
On our last day dad calls me in after lunch for Bach’s Fugue, and laughs when I call it Christmas music. As always, I lie on the floor with my eyes closed, and imagine grand cathedrals and mosques, with intricately carved vaults; the tinkling geometry of ice crystals and the feel of colours.
‘It’s still magic, dad!’ I declare at the end.

*****
I ride into town to meet Elizabeth at the pool. She is with her family and we lie on the lawn after swimming, demolishing icy-poles. By late
afternoon the throngs have departed, leaving a lane in which I swim laps. While swimming is satisfying, it’s not fun like body surfing. Before the kiosk closes, I buy a liquorice bar, and arrive home with a blackened tongue and wicked, aniseed breath. Awaiting mum and Nick’s return curtails my freedom. I fill the time by busying myself with cleaning and tidying. By lunchtime the house is considerably more orderly than mum left it. Satisfied, I take a long ride, resolving to return only after the holidaymakers are back. On the third lap of the road I dawdle. The driveway remains empty. I take a quick drink at the tank and head down the lane. It is almost three thirty, and the sun has reduced the surface to a shimmering strip of gravel, and the shoulders are creased by dead grass and weeds. How parched it seems after the glistening ocean and grassy dunes of Port Fairy. I can think of a dozen places for adventure there, and would welcome an ocean’s lullaby. I fail to
notice our cream Ford Falcon turn in the driveway.
All we hear about for the next week is what a good investment mum’s house will be. She says the owner is keen to sell and that she has enough shares pay for it, only needing dad’s support. But he is wary of her proposal, and new arguments sour the holidays.

‘You could at least take a look at it, Merlin,’ she snaps defensively.

‘I’m no builder,’ he replies sharply. ‘And you’ll need a housing inspector through it before you go buying a wreck like that. Not to mention a
good builder to do all the work.’

‘It’s not a wreck, Merlin! You haven’t even seen it, so how do you know?’

‘You described it as a wreck yourself on the phone.’ He pulls at his boot. ‘The place obviously needs work if the walls are still wet and the plumbing’s so basic. Good lord, Lola, I’ve got a farm to manage. I can’t go traipsing to Port Fairy to do renovations.’

‘I’m not asking you to stay down there for days, and I’ll get tradesmen for the big jobs. Surely you can clean up the back yard, though. You said how much you enjoyed staying at the hotel there. Well, imagine having our own holiday house to stay in. It’d soon pay for itself.’

Dad simmers at the back door. He knows mum’s determined to get her own way. To disagree will be worse than renovating, in the long run.
After another week of bickering he weakens. ‘I agree that a holiday house is a good idea, Lola, but why does it have to be a run-down two
storey nightmare? What about one of those fibro cottages in Peterborough? Or somewhere nearer, so I can check the stock each day or so? Why do you need a two-storey place anyway?’

‘Because it’s only two thousand pounds, that’s why,’ she grates. ‘It’s an investment.’ She senses victory. ‘We will rent out one floor and use the other. We could even let that part out for much of the year. There are always plenty of holiday makers looking for rentals.’

Dad says nothing more for a bit.

I hate hearing them argue and head outside to my camp on the veranda. Their voices resume, pitched at each. Any minute mum will end up in tears, and dad won’t talk for days on end, and I want to be anywhere else but here.There’s a brief lull.

Mum begins again. ‘It’s not every day you get such a property for that price is it? How can we lose on such an investment?’

Still nothing from dad. They’re on the move through the house, mum’s heels on lino, then up the hall; the rattle of cups and saucers as she prepares afternoon tea. Nick and I know we must tread carefully until this is over.

There’s still tension at the dinner table. I listen in silence and flee once the dishes are done, riding up and down the driveway, and drinking
in the silence and simplicity of sunset. On Wednesday the matter is resolved. Dad agrees to inspect the house next Saturday, and mum
organises an appointment with the estate agent. The tension eases; a relief to us all, and teaches me how holidays have massive consequences. Against dad’s judgement, mum buys the house. Now we must all agree to put in our best effort towards its restoration. In return, mum foots the bill for materials and tradesmen. It costs almost as much again for the refurbishment, and the workmen are slow. They have little experience with heritage constraints on historical buildings.

Mum’s discovery of the house’s history is a two-edged sword. An early educator, Dr. Braim built the school for children of landowners. It was the first boarding school in Victoria. Mum christens the building Braim House in his honour. For several weekends we work from dawn to dusk, clearing the back yard, and carting loads of vegetation and discarded building materials to the rubbish tip. We join mum in the laborious task of scrubbing, scraping, repairing and painting the walls, and dad is conscripted for basic plumbing and carpentry. Tradesmen repair the roof, build a new bathroom, install a toilet, and virtually rewire all the circuits. With the onset of winter, new leaks and rising damp appear.

While Nick is away at school, tradesmen muddle on, and I spend dank months helping mum with detailing, sewing taffeta curtains, blind fixtures and furnishings. The project is a huge test of family commitment, and it is wearing us down. While the walls are eighteen inches thick, winter gales find their way under doors and up chimneys. The first floor is warmest, and offers a view across the town. Arctic gales bluster and howl, and the ashen sky makes reminds me how dismal much of the year can be. Each night the ocean pounds the coast, soothing me to sleep. By the following summer Braim house welcomes its first tenants. It is a cool haven from the searing heat, and an easy bike-ride or walk to the river and beaches.
For Christmas, we receive fishing rods and tackle from Santa, and a tackle box and bag from Husso. Pirate, our cat, provides the reels. Dad takes us on our first fishing trip on Boxing Day. We try The Point, and he asks the advice of a neighbouring fisher who invites us over for a tutorial. The result is a fine catch of mullet. Traveling back and forth, we manage the farm and holidays. Nick has schoolmates to visit and the summer drifts, luxuriously long. Dad buys a second-hand boat and trailer and takes us out along the Moyne and into the bay for fishing. But as farm work increases, the boat languishes in the shed. In the new year mum finds tenants for the downstairs flat, freeing up time and
money for her pottery. And from Easter until the following summer, the top floor is rented, too. My holidays and weekends return to a
happy farm routine. I’m glad to see the last of the sandpaper, brushes, paint and blisters. Now there are more pressing matters to consider…

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