The Adventures of Kosio and Juanito:
An Australian adventure about fishing, love and life
By John R.Atwood
Chapter 1: Flatheads and Economic Rationalism
Last night I dreamed that I was having sex with the Easter Bunny. After we had finished he lit a cigarette, turned to me and said, “do you think Santa can f**k like that?”
Bilinga Beach, The Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia: Easter 1998.
I’m going back down to Byron Bay, I don’t care what they say.
I’ll have to get an illness though, put a medical term to what I’m feeling. Otherwise the bureaucrats will never let me stay. At least if I want any pay.
The government knows that living is misery, and they’d prefer me here, in the sunshine state, with the spiky end of a pineapple shoved up my arse, learning that lesson.
I mean they don’t want me down here, lazing on the fine beaches, fishing, enjoying life. Who am I kidding? They don’t even know who I am.
I don’t even know who I am.
I cast my line lazily into the ocean. The full moon rising on the eastern horizon – and the tide coming in.
I draw a cross in the sand with a circle around it and I draw something else, which I call a rabbit – and he’s on his way to being crucified.
Today in the supermarket I looked down at my trolley’s wonky wheel, going left to right, left to right, left to right, thinking how expensive lamb chops have got.
Down the seventh isle, past the shampoo and tampons, I stood by the face cream section, in front of the Nivea Visage, thinking of Corinne and the caress of her nose on my ear and her cheeks as smooth as a baby’s butt cheeks.
And I felt my own face, dried and stretched from months spent on the sand watching the water go by.
My hand reached out and put the Nivea on top of chops – as though this would bring her back from the melting snow up there in those mountains with the wild fennel and the goats, and all the other Swiss with their smooth skin.
How long had it been since she left? I try counting back the weeks as I poke a jellyfish with my toe.
Jellyfish are complicated organisms, well they are actually a group of organisms living together in a translucent blue (in this case) shared house, all undertaking different tasks to keep the creature alive. It is a successful relationship that has lasted since the Jurassic period.
I read that in a book I got from the Coolangatta library.
The sky is turning orange and purple, I place my toes under the blob laying in the sand and flick it into the water. It gets some height then splashes into the water as a man and his dog walks by.
“Haven’t seen the beach look like this for years”, he says.
“No, it’s more like a pool than a beach, aye?”
And he throws a stick and the dog barks as he sends sea shells flying behind his little legs.
Sixteen weeks, yeah, sometime in January. Her round face and a tear in her eye, as the bus headed to the airport. Sixteen, maybe seventeen now.
The current had been cutting a gutter into the beach for the last few weeks. I’d observed it growing, every day, without fail (“Just observe”, says the Buddha, “just observe”). It now stretched from Bilinga to Tugun, a good two kilometres.
At low tide the gutter became a pool with an exposed sandbank fifty or sixty metres from the shore protecting it from the surf.
This morning I’d dove down and chased the small whiting which darted along the sandy floor, making sure to avoid the gaps in the banks that led out to sea, where the water rushed into the mouths of sharks.
Sharks wouldn’t come that close to shore during the day. I knew that. But why take the chance?
I swam out to the bank and stood where the water had parted, with the ocean to the left and right of me, thinking the Hebrews must have been pretty impressed with Moses.
The tide is coming in now and I smell the rain, the first for a while. It is the smell of a child, the smell of anticipation, of hope. It’s Autumn rain.
I’d spent three disgusting summer months in my little flat by the beach. Surrounded by humidity, suffocated by the air.
At night the place became a playground for a thousand cockroaches of assorted sizes and shapes – Queensland: beautiful one day, infested the rest of the time.
I’d gathered photographic evidence of the bug’s activities during my term there, hoping to create an exhibition entitled: Cockroaches and Blue Bottles. People wouldn’t understand and I would waste a lot of easy-come easy-go money getting prints but nonetheless I’d get out the Olympus and sneak up on them at night and stun them with the flash.
Maybe I’d become famous, and she hear about me in Switzerland.
The tide continues to turn, there’s a good metre and a half of water in the gutter now and the sandbank is submerged for another few hours, the sea joining again as the sun sets and the moon gets a little higher.
I’m hoping for a shoal of tailor to swim in – a vicious bunch of pelagic fish who like to rip apart pilchards.
It’s something I do to avoid getting high.
I concentrate on my line. It lies on the bottom of the gutter, baited with a set of three ganged hooks (three hooks linked as a chain) attached to a large West Australian pilchard.
A few drops of rain touch my hair. The wind picks up and sand sticks to my face, gluing to the Nivea Visage.
“God I hate economic rationalists.” I think. People running around talking about figures, growth, matters of utmost consequence.
Surely everything, if you view it rationally, is of no consequence at all! In the right circumstances a fish could very well be worth as much as a million dollars. I mean, if you’re really hungry – and probably if you are a blue-fin tuna lying on ice in Tokyo in the year 2050.
The madness of the rationalists doesn’t let him see this folly however, and you still seem to get more respect if you’re in a nice car with a good suit and a platinum Visa card in your pocket starving to death, than you do in a pair of shorts chewing on a mouthful of bream.
Something fishy is going on, maybe I’m the only one who knows about it. It might not even be paranoid either, as I haven’t smoked for months.
A few weeks ago Sacha called me from Melbourne, chatted nervously for a few seconds, then got to the point: Sally’s dead, overdose. Two weeks or so later, another call from Sacha’s housemate, Sacha’s disappeared. Here today, gone tomorrow.
My line tenses, I watch the full moon’s reflection in the water. Something is going for my bait. Something is having a go – why not? It’s Australian, and that’s what it’s all about. I wait, like a porpoise preparing to jump through a flamin’ hoop. “Come to papa, honey”.
I lift my rod and snare the hooks into the creature. I feel its tail flipping from side to side, pulling like a little bull.
Fuck, the rod bends right over like an Indian contortionist, my line twangs with tension, threatening to break. I release it a little, “play” with it a bit.
These aren’t games though – it’s not football here, it’s life and death.
As Sky’s daughter says (and Sky’s obviously from around Byron Bay if you didn’t pick that up from the name), “fish wants to live”.
Yeah, fish wants to live all right. I know that. This one’s telling me loud and clear. I hold the line, trying to abate its retreat. I can’t blame it for struggling; I suspect it figures that something’s up. It’s primal instinct. And, of course, it is totally correct.
I hear its primitive mind down there going:
“Something’s going wrong, this little fish is attached to my top lip, and it hurts, and…”
“I don’t know what the fuck’s going on here, but I’m heading back out into the ocean. These gutters have sticky fish! Sticky, pricking, altogether annoying little pain-in-arse fish! It’s pulling me back to shore! What, is it possessed? Oh my fucking god I’ve got a possessed fish attached to my lip!”
Eventually it tires and decides to bunker down in the middle of the gutter, as the tide begins to reach its peak, rippling the moon’s image, refusing to budge.
I hold my ground. It must be a sand shark. I’d been catching a few of them recently. They are generally a metre to metre and a half, in length and are more of a ray than a shark. I hate touching them and always look like a sissy when I have to do so. They have a large, diamond-shaped head and these big eyes that look at you helplessly when you get them on the shore.
Like a Buddhist monk…no, more like a little aquatic puppy.
“Okay I’m ready to die, I’ve fought valiantly…” says the fish, adding dramatically, “I have no fear any more, I see the light, the bright white light, calling me. So eat my flesh, take it from my body, let my bones decay, my life is now of no consequence”.
The fish begins to move again. I carefully edge it towards the shore, feeling the life draining from it’s body. Then it sits steadfast on the sandy floor, looking up at the moon through the water, one last time before meeting the “Maker”.
As cruel as it is – you forget about it. Conscious as you are to its will to live, you don’t want to let it go either.
It would be even crueller to let it go at this point anyway. If I wasn’t patient, if I tried too hard and snapped the line, whatever was out there will die anyway. Having three hooks attached to your mouth is a distinct disadvantage in an environment where just about everything that is bigger than you views you as a potential meal.
On the other hand it might survive. If the piercing was right, it could probably live out its days terrorising other fish, ripping them apart with its extra steal teeth. The likelihood though, is limited.
I pull in the final few metres of line, totally doped out with adrenalin. Droplets form on my eyelids, water drips down my long hair and salt air fills my lungs and dries my lips. The nylon noose is at its end. I step closer to the water’s edge, the clouds float over and cover the moon, but I can still make out this long shape in the shallows. I walk backwards, dragging it onto the beach. No one is here, just the whisper of the ocean waves and the sound of this huge flathead’s tail sweeping the sand.
It is a dark, muddy-coloured, brown “lizard”. I’d seen some guy walking along near Shellharbour, south of Sydney, with one last year. It had stretched from the bottom of his rib cage to his feet. He had to lift his arm to keep its tail from brushing on the ground. I couldn’t touch it. It was probably pretty pissed off now and prone to irrational acts of retaliation, which I feel it is fully entitled too.
And these flatheads have these spikes, behind their heads, that can cause quite some pain.
Jesus, you could feed a fair few Israelites on this one.
I bend down to try and extract the hooks. It swipes its tail and whips its head around in defiance. I jump back, then look around into the darkness, making sure that no one saw my cowardice.
I wave my hands at the fish, hoping it might jump off by itself…
And then the lord comes, in the form of some old bastard walking along the beach, clutching surf rod and creel.
He displays the normal politeness, “did you get anything, etc.”
I cannot speak, I just point. I’ve pulled out a monster and now that monster has me bailed up in my own territory.
He turns on his torch, The Light shines. “That’s the biggest flathead I’ve seen caught around here for years.” He smiles smoking a cigarette.
I feel like I’ve just had a baby and am meant to pick it up and start cuddling it. But I feel more like Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby. The Roman Polanski film where Rosemary’s husband lets the devil sleep with his wife and then they have a devil child with ugly brown claws and a funny looking head.
This is my devil child – I try to love it, I just can’t.
The old man steps in and with one little twist the hooks are gone.
Then he goes, leaving me alone – again…
I can’t look it in its eye, murder bloody murder, and I’ve been caught.
“It’s big,” I look away, then turn again to confirm, “it’s big”. It must have lived for over ten years to get this big – twenty maybe. Swimming around in a shoal that is constantly decreasing. Watching brothers and sisters getting knocked off one by one by stingrays, squid, fishermen, eels. Somehow managing to avoid them all, to this point…
And that is the point.
Too bad there’s no retirement plan for fish. Maybe they could build a place for them here on the Gold Coast. They’ve got all the other old battlers up here from WWII, Korea and Sydney and Melbourne. Maybe they could build a new exhibition for them at Sea World called, “the ones that got away.”
Sea World is too pretentious for that now though. Not like the 70s when your old man could hang you over an open tank to pat a grey nurse shark fin that swam around in circles for hours and hours.
No, they got rid of the giant concrete fish tank years ago and started bringing in rides and safety rules.
Safety? What about fun?
No one, to my knowledge, had ever even had his or her arms ripped off during that era. Admittedly that would have probably been due to pure Australian luck triumphing over stupidity. But so! This country was born of a risky, and at times blood thirsty, pioneering spirit. And there were always our mothers, who’d suddenly look up and see their darling boy or girl hanging appetisingly over this very menacing looking creature with really sharp teeth and yell, “what the hell are you doing with that child?!”
That was normally enough to keep the menfolk in check.
Though most of our fathers didn’t seem to know why they were being yelled at, oddly enough. Those were the days.
I bait up and cast my line back into the surf. Immediately I get another strike. Another flathead! Jesus Christ. I prepare myself for another long wait. The line tenses up again.
Then it snaps.
I reel in the broken line – it twists around in the wind – pack up and go home, holding the fish by its tail, it’s head dragging in the sand.
Five hours, standing.
The moon, she’s gone.
Going mad without her help,
Shivering, tired. The rain a mist,
entering my body with every breath.
I am not happy here. The doctor would see that.
Give me my certificate, make it official: my mind swims with fishes.
Chapter 2: Rare Cod and a Touch of French Existentialism
“How did I get to be ranting to myself about economics, Swiss women and dead and missing friends on Bilinga Beach?” I think to myself.
My arm aches from the fish. Got to clean and gut it before I get to the flat — sister’s a vegetarian and in her eyes I might look a bit psycho hacking away at this huge fish as blood splatters on the bench and walls.
The beach is now devoid of humans, the foreshore settles down to the blue flicker of Televisions and the theme music to Neighbours. Kind of ironic — rows of neighbours watching Neighbours not really knowing who their real neighbours are.
Not that I want to know mine. I’m just hoping the drug squad come and drag them away so we don’t have to listen to Metallica coming through the ceiling any more.
And they might want to take the madman from down the street who almost hit me in his car the other day when he swerved off the road and onto the footpath to scare his girlfriend while I was on the way back from the shop with my milk and paper. The paper was to ‘look for jobs’, I applied for the ones I could, never got a single response. The girl was shit scared, I asked her if she was okay, she wasn’t but she said she was.
The Buddha talked about change, decay, and the need to come to terms with it to reach happiness. Life is misery, impermanent. If you accept this, you somehow become happier — so the theory goes.
I get to the showers at the end of my street and wash the sand from my feet and the fish. The rain drizzles on.
I take my trusty Victorinox knife out and plunge it into the flathead’s stomach. Its insides burst out as I run the blade down the length of it, revealing a half eaten bait fish. You’ve got to get your fingers right in there and run your nails down its spine. Detaching entrails with detachment, in the way of the Buddha. Though the Buddha was not that keen on fishing ,the Buddha would say that you shouldn’t kill another living being — not like old Jesus, who loved his fishermen.
As I looked at this being, living just half an hour ago, I would probably agree. It should still be out there eating pilchards by a full moon, looking up at the universe.
Then again the pilchards probably feel differently.
Who to please? Too many choices.
I wash the last of the guts from the fish and walk to the flat.
My being here on the Gold Coast has been a culmination of a series of events. Of course everything in life is a culmination of a series of events which actually never really culminate – until you die, though even this is debatable.
So the beginning of this particular series of events stems back to around the time I was born. Not remembering much about my birth, and knowing less about the series of events that led to this birth, apart from the obvious biological facts of life, I cast myself back to the beginning of this particular chapter in my life.
That began on Bourke Street, Melbourne…
November 1997, Melbourne.
A cool day in late spring.
A tram goes up the hill along Bourke Street. People cross the streets as a few pigeons shit here and there, looking stupid, weaving between the car tyres and the plane trees that line the street.
They carry little plastic bags with an orange and a sandwich in it. Worse still there’s some with little square Décor containers with last night’s curry in them, the festering contents of which make my stomach churn.
I wrap my serviette around my glass and sip it. Christophe had thought it was too trendy putting your serviette around a glass in this fashion, it was one of the many things that drove him insane — though the principle thing that drove him insane, I contend, was actually his own insanity. If you knew him, you’d know what I mean.
The coffee’s making me jittery and I just need to get out of this town. Get away from everyone who has a superannuation plan. To follow the Australian dream. To defy authority, to wear interesting clothes, like Ned Kelly and his 40 kilogram body armour.
I’d stand in a forest with cops surrounding me yelling, “take your best shots ya bastards!” and to say things like, “such is life” as they hang me from the gallows in Old Melbourne Gaol (spelt like goal for some reason). Though things might have gone horribly wrong for Ned if his timing was off and it might have turned out like: “suc…(trapdoor opens with a clang, rope tightens) gurgle, gurgle gurgle, gasp.” And then the reporters for The Age would write: defiant to the end, the nation’s most notorious bushranger simply said “suck”. And the headline on the front page of the Herald Sun would just say:
-Ned Kelly’s final message to Australians.
I’d seen the light a few weeks ago. It was after catching a fish off Sorrento pier, at the relatively clean end of what I consider to be a bacteria-infested cesspool, also known as Port Phillip Bay. I reeled it in as the sun went down. A brown creature with kind of brown blotches and a slimy texture — not a turd in spite of my previous analogy — we weren’t sure what it was, but we ate it anyway.
“It looks alright”, Kosio had said.
“I don’t know, it might be poisonous.” I said.
“Nuh, it wouldn’t be poisonous.”
I didn’t really trust Kosio’s judgement when it came to eating things not wrapped up in plastic at a supermarket — even then it was a bit dubious — but it was late in the day and we had to drive back to Melbourne, and as they say, a fish in hand is cheaper than buying some other unidentifiable creature in batter from the fish and chip shop.
Which reminds me of a dank day in autumn last year when we walked around the wet hills of Nutfield, where I worked, picking mushrooms and again I couldn’t see any species I could identify as being edible.
My boss Peter Brock – ‘The’ Peter Brock – had probably gotten them all early in the day, he had better eyes than me, you need them when you are speeding around tracks at 300 km/h.
Kosio, on the other hand, was finding mushrooms left right and centre. They were sprouting up like mushrooms on a dank autumn’s day. All of them, of course, looked rather poisonous — but I’d overdosed on gold-topped mushrooms in Newcastle a few years back — and had as a result tried to walk the 300 or so kilometres to Sydney in the early hours of the morning — so I figured I probably had a little tolerance to poison built up. But then he shows me a puffball, and I say, “you can’t eat puffballs”.
Puffballs are, as the name suggests, these round mushrooms that sit on the ground like a puffball.
“Of course you can eat them, we eat them in Bulgaria all the time.” He said.
“Yes, but we are in Australia now and we don’t eat fucking puffballs or lamb’s testicles”, I say.
“You Australian are too fussy”.
Eventually I was convinced to put the puffballs in the mushroom stew that we created as the cold rain pelted down on the tin roof of my little shed in the paddock.
We mixed all the puffballs and other mushrooms with a tin of tomatoes and as expected they tasted acrid and downright unpalatable and I ended up picking them all out and putting them on the side of the plate, much to the disgust of Kosio, until he came to the realisation that they tasted like shit as well.
Fortunately he was right about the fish that I’d caught at Sorrento — as right as a person who clicks an empty barrel when he’s playing Russian roulette at least.
It was a very tasty treat. I did it with a little lemon and salt in the oven over at his house as his stoned flatmates stared at the walls. I found out later that it was probably some sort of rock cod. Unfortunately it seemed to be a rare type of rock cod that was dwindling in numbers. I hope it wasn’t the last one. Ooops.
Back on Bourke Street I take another gulp of the coffee, wanting to finish it fast. Wanting the next few days to finish fast.
The fish, God rest its endangered soul, had shown me the direction, and that direction was north. North, away from the city, back to clean water and familiar fish.
The last fish I’d caught — before the cod — was ten years ago on the Gold Coast. About the same time I finished high school and went on a search for a place where people might know who Sartre was and what existentialism was, and where they didn’t surf all day and make fun of pale red-heads. Of course no one actually knows what existentialism is, I guess that’s the point, like the 60s, if you remember them, you weren’t really there. I ended up in Melbourne where I soon decided that Sartre should have gone out and surfed more often than he did and that people should read less books and get down the beach more often.
I’d gone full circle. Through the nihilistic stage; back and forth through the smoking pot and taking mushrooms and L.S.D stage; through the Buddhist, drug-free vegetarian and vegan stage; through the travel overseas stage; and now I was back with the simple fish.
Grab a few bread loaves and a saintly figure and you can feed thousands off a few of them. Though many types of fish, and saintly figures, are currently in short supply.
I scull the last bit of coffee and pass over two dollars to the Italian behind the espresso machine.
I wasn’t coming back to this city in a hurry.
I was entering my ‘return to roots stage’.
In the last few months signs of mild insanity had been flashing, urging me on. Arrows pointed everywhere, but here. The grass is always greener in Mullumbimby they say. Even if it’s not greener it certainly is less expensive, are more potent.
The world was conspiring against me as it normally does.
First there was my gay German housemate and friend, K, who didn’t like my girlfriend and thought that I made too much noise walking on the wooden floorboards in the mornings (and probably when we were having sex). So he wasn’t talking to me.
Then there was my girlfriend, Agatha. Quiet and introspective, she hardly ever visited me, and hated my best friend Christophe.
She’d decided we should break up. Actually I decided we should break up — she just stopped visiting me.
And then there was Christophe (or Chris as I’d known him at P.B.C high school), who’d come down to Melbourne from Byron Bay with a band looking to become rich and famous only to end up being stuck in a granny flat behind a house in Brunswick smoking bongs for eight months while the band floated off in different directions, dazed and confused, forgetting what they’d come here for. He didn’t like Agatha and was happy when we broke up. Then he left with his pregnant cat.
And there were the others: Sally, turning to speed and heroin; Sacha turning his head to the world, depressed by lack of employment and life in general; Kosio, amongst other things, complaining about his paranoid pot-smoking housemates and ex-wife.
Society, at least the part closet to me, was caving in.
Nothing was beautiful any more.
No paddocks to pick mushrooms. Too many people, too much concrete.
And the pot just made it worse.
So I phoned up the meditation centre in the Blue Mountains and told them I wanted to do a course and that I’d been smoking a lot of pot and all that and they told me to rush up quickly and to start meditating as soon as the next ten-day retreat started, and to stop smoking the pot and all that and I said cool, and then convinced Kosio, who didn’t really need that much convincing, to drive me up there and to maybe go to Cairns afterwards.
And that was the beginning. But as they say in the adverts on TV, wait, there’s more.
Chapter 3: The Bulgarian
Kosio was a refugee from Bulgaria.
In 1988 he’d been living in Sofia and had asked his father, a Bulgarian foreign diplomat, whether he could get him a place in Moscow’s top art college (perks of the job, some being more equal than others in that strange Orwellian way). His father said that he couldn’t.
Kosio pointed out that his father had helped his mistress get into a similar college. His father still said no.
So Kosio decided to escape to Austria and arranged to have his wife and son meet him there.
As a result, his father, who had had a cushy job in Paris, lost his cushy job and was banned from leaving the country — not for a very long time as it turned out with the fall of the iron curtain the following year. When capitalism came, he was relegated to street cleaning.
The Bulgarian couple and their child spent eight months in Austria.
“Eight months with these racist, totally rude people. They treated us like Gypsies!” Kosio had told me, not realising the irony of his statement.
But the racist Austrians were able to give him enough money to go to France, who, although occasionally known for their belief in their own cultural superiority, didn’t understand him because he was speaking English. He therefore ended up in Sweden.
The Swedes offered him and his whole family asylum, they were very friendly indeed. But it was too cold there for Kosio, he was thinking of somewhere warmer. He’d collected some stamps from Australia as a kid and thought that sounded okay, so he asked our government if they would take him as a political refugee.
The Swedes were most upset, they thought that maybe something was wrong with their country, that they’d somehow offended their poor refugee. But Kosio didn’t care especially.
In a few weeks the Australian government had paid for his airfares, flown him over, and set him up with a house in Adelaide under a “save the poor commies scheme”.
After two weeks he decided he didn’t like Adelaide, so he moved the family to Melbourne.
He went back to Bulgaria a few times once the iron curtains had faded, but things were even worse under capitalism, it had become a mafia-run state. Every man for himself. The people were poor, their money worth nothing and, on top of all that, his father wasn’t happy about being a street cleaner, and, to Kosio’s surprise, blamed Kosio.
My first contact with Kosio had been at Pellegrinis, on Bourke street — not surprising since I hardly ever went to any other cafe in the CBD. I’d been working hard on the Brocks’ farm in Nutfield, just outside of Melbourne, planting trees for ten straight days, and had decided to go visit the big smoke for a day. At the time I enjoyed cities — at a pinch.
I was stable then — like a rock hanging from a tree on a windless day.
My bosses had helped this stability, they were a healthy couple, into birds, meditation, meat-free living and positive thinking. Rather ironic (too some) in that Peter was a high-octane and very successful racing-car driver who used to smoke Marlboros by the box full (in the days of Toranas), and catch large sharks in small boats with his pregnant partner Bev begging him to release them before they capsized. He was someone that I’d never have imagined to be much of a roll model to be honest — not that I really knew much about him, apart from having heard his name in association with the famous Bathurst race, before I’d started working for him.
So I was walking around the city with my farm-boy grin and I thought I’d pop in for a coffee. It was my wicked treat at that stage, I had been living on herbal teas and caffeine-free cereal beverages for a while. I hadn’t even had a cigarette since Thailand the previous year.
I walked into Pellegrinis and sat on a stool in front of their thin, wooden bar, next to Kosio. I ordered a coffee as his smoke bellowed around me.
“Would I be able to grab a cigarette off you?” I asked.
We began talking and found out that we’d both arrived in Melbourne for the first time in 1989. We’d also both been overseas the previous year and had both arrived back at the same time. And we both thought that people in Melbourne were emotionally uptight.
Kosio was wondering about that, thought something was wrong with him. In Bulgaria he knew the cool bars and cafes where he would find an old friend or a perfect stranger to banter onto for hours.
There were not much bohemians here he thought.
Yeah, they were a pretty straight bunch these Melburnians.
I offered to show him around Fitzroy on my next visit to the city, have some fun.
We ended up hanging out, hitch-hiking around Victoria on occasions, and eating baked beans while Kosio played tunes on the guitar in his little flat in Saint Kilda, which smelt like a giant ashtray.
He was a living example of the dark, European existentialist philosopher/ artist who I had been so close to in literature on the Gold Coast. I had branched out, and lightened up a bit since then, but there was still a soft spot in me for sadness. For the soul struggle, isolation and contemplation. It seemed so much more real, less forced, than the hedonistic pursuits of most people.
People seemed afraid to say that they were lost, hurt, lonely. There is a veiled stigma attached to this.
Television, propaganda, greed and stupidity perpetuated it. Everywhere, “happy” images. A shampoo that could save your life, a vodka to make you feel cool, a face cream to bring back the memories of youth, wrinkled as they were.
Kosio had no problem telling me all about it — all the time.
He had been protesting all this bullshit in Bulgaria. Not exactly the same bullshit, but then bullshit is bullshit.
The terds he faced in his neck of the cow paddock were called Communists, a paranoid bunch who provided cheap bus tickets.
He’d been in the army there, like every able bodied man in Bulgaria, nothing special about that, and he was constantly being told that the Greeks were going to invade at any time (the reality being that they were sitting on their arses in Athens drinking coffee and talking about how good things where when Plato was around). And when the Greek threat didn’t work they were told that the Americans were spying on them, planning to send General Ronald McDonald in to cause some havoc.
On the other hand if you accepted all this (and if you ignored the fact that half the Greeks had moved to Australia, and that Ronald McDonald was too busy trying to protect Big Macs from the Hamburglar) you were entitled to take four weeks holiday on the Black Sea every single year (or get a job in Paris if you had the connections).
Kosio didn’t accept all this but he did take the holidays, and five to ten weeks more, and he didn’t limit himself to the Black Sea, being the bohemian that he is.
So, there were no Big Macs, but everyone had food. There was not the plethora of consumables we had here in the big brown land, but there was also not much in the way of unemployment, and no advertising telling women they had to cover up all their imperfections to appeal to men, the men just liked the woman and the woman just liked the men, just like it’s always been. Not that they didn’t have make-up — there’s always make-up.
As for their propaganda, well, no one with half a brain really believed anything the government said anyway. Most people viewed them in the same way as we view a senile family member, just nod and smile, and wait till they cark it.
They couldn’t walk along the street saying the Prime Minister was a dickhead, but then again, as Kosio points out, nobody does it here much anyway. And if they do, no one listens.
Besides there’s only one other guy to vote for and he’s generally a dickhead as well.
Our government had saved an ungrateful communist, not taken in by the might of capitalism and democracy.
I liked him, I was pretty ungrateful myself.
Chapter 4: A Grand Plan.
The Plan: survive on fish (or lentils if we caught none) and coffee and live happily ever after. The End.
Sitting in a classroom at RMIT TAFE college, tomorrow’s the day. Soy sauce, spices, salt, lentils, lemon for fish, fishing stuff, knives…
The tutor is asking about our final research projects, due next week. Mine was a half-arsed attempt to give a picture of what Melbourne was like at the time of the first European immigration.
I’d been gathering a lot of information, mainly about bunyips, but the tutor had dismissed it all as frivolous, inconsequential. So I decided he could shove his research paper fair up his rectum.
Oranges, esky, camera, stereo, probably need more lentils…
I’d learnt that a creek used to run down Elizabeth Street into the Yarra Yarra and that people used to catch eels and fish in that creek. I’d learnt that local Koori clans used to meet where the present parliament house was located to discuss marriage and boundary issues. I’d learnt that Aboriginals did have property in the form of clan territories and that they lived in constant fear of having their kidney’s stolen by rivals. And that the winter fashion of the day consisted of fine fur coats made from the skins of possums…these were the days before people knew fur was murder.
I’d learnt all that and decided that if people were interested in history they could go do their own research. It’s all in the library.
Better get some toilet…
“How’s your’s going?” The tutor asked, distracting me from my list.
“It’s going really well, I’m nearly finished, I just need until next week.” When I’m fishing somewhere on the coast miles from you and your bunyip-hating ways.
He rolls his eyes, “Okay, definitely next week. You’ll have to send it too me at Monash though.”
He writes the address down.
Better get the coffee machine…
“No worries.” I assured him as he hands me the paper.
And then it’s over — goodbye, keep an eye on your kidneys brudda.
It’s a Friday afternoon. People having lunch, waiting till the end of the day so they can get drunk.
I look back, one last survey of Melbourne. The city, buildings, fascinating. Vietnamese restaurants — I think I’ve gone off Vietnamese, too much grease. Pigeons, well they can’t help but being pigeons. Seagulls, I don’t like seagulls. Cafes, well the rest of Australia are starting to learn how to make coffee now, so that’s no longer reason to stay.
Cars, smog, people, dully dressed. Fish guts getting washed from the floor of the Queen Victoria Market. Waiting for a tram and I’ve got to finish packing.
Meditation centre’s booked. We’ve got five days to get there.
I climb up the steps of the number 55 and sit and twiddle my thumbs imagining the tropical sunshine, as the tram trundles its way through several suburbs.
I’m surprised I made it, I’m proud for a moment, for I’ve actually finished most of the first year of a a university course.
It’s the forth I’ve started. I was going to be an economist, then a teacher, then an Arts degree with a major in history then I got to writing.
They almost succeeded in turning me off this last one ramming magic realism and “work ethic” down my throat, whilst devaluing madness, contemplation and eccentricity. Perhaps it was all the pot I smoked that year, but I had the feeling they all wanted to take the fun out of life.
But living wasn’t about words. Any moron could write words: soothing words, false words, passionate words, pretty words…
Words weren’t living baby. Living’s living.
Shakespeare, the master of words, had this to say of words:
Hamlet is in the library, another character, whose name I can’t recall, asks after the Dane.
Other Character: What are you reading?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
I arrive in Brunswick, the Verona of Melbourne perhaps? I don’t think so.
They say moving is one of the most distressful things a human can undergo.
For me, it’s a matter of course and with manic glee I throw things in boxes…
I was beginning to see a small glimpse of light, a summer holiday, a 70s’ film where the fields are greener than green and the flowers always bloom just as the acid’s kicking in. A vision of fresh gold-top mushrooms, their domes covered in dew, protruding from aromatic cow pats. Of cold mountain streams where you can communicate with eels and small fishes and leave your clothes guarded by butterflies.
Make sure that all the kitchen gear is in one box…
My housemate K comes into the room.
“So you’re off soon.”
“I can’t wait.”
I’d met K, who was part German and rather tall, at Pellegrinis in 1992, which, as mentioned, was also the place I met Kosio years later. I was drunk and waiting for David Lynch’s film Grandmother to start. I asked K for a cigarette (sponging cigarettes has proven quite fruitful in terms of my social life) and we got to talking about sailing and how nice the German uniforms were during World War II.
We also noted that that probably didn’t make up for their genocidal tendencies.
K tried to show me how to roll a proper cigarette — I was 19 and he rightly thought that I was just a naive little prince.
He was my oldest friend in Melbourne, but he, as I, was lost in some black forest in the middle of winter hoping for the clouds to part.
He understood movement, having divided his life between Melbourne and Berlin; interspersed with occasional bicycle rides in Northern Italy and Poland.
He was also an anarchist, not the mohawk punk anarchy, but the sophisticated intellectual type they have in Germany. He felt that people should be free to enjoy the many simple pleasures of life and to leave for greener pastures when those simple pleasures weren’t so pleasurable.
There was still a hint of sadness in his eye though. There would be no one to thump down the hallway in the mid-morning trying to get to university. There would be no one to water the tomatoes and drink cups of tea with. And there would be no one sneaking in at 2 a.m. stoned out of his brain, trying to get his shoes off for half an hour before getting into bed. I knew he’d miss me. I also knew we’d drive each other crazy if I spent another summer in Brunswick. Even with the tomatoes.
“Who will look after the tomatoes?” He asks.
“You’ll just have to water them and make sure the weeds don’t get too big. And put some of that seaweed fertiliser on them.”
“How much do you put on?”
“The instructions are on the side of the bottle. Don’t worry, it’s really not that difficult.”
“Ah, youthful folly.” K reaches for the kettle, tea on the mind.
I was becoming nervous, my feet were cold. This whole thing was going to be too unpredictable. And we will have to fill in all this time! The seconds of the minutes, the minutes of the hours, the hours of the day — oh shit, I forgot, I’m going to die one day, bummer.
I’d contemplated sitting still and not participating in life, to avoid disappointment. Put it all on pause until I am ready for it. But you can’t. It keeps ticking away, decaying, moving, and sometimes just plain grooving baby.
The kettle boils, time for tea.
K has a nice clay coloured tea-pot that he places over a clay coloured tea-pot warmer. They are a neat device that requires one lit tea-candle for placing in the middle.
“I wish you could come,” I say insincerely.
“You’re just saying that.”
He was pretty sharp, he had most of an Anthropology degree from Berlin University.
“No one used to finish a degree in my day. It was a little distraction in between the stoning of rich people’s houses and the drinking of rich people’s wines, courtesy of their anarchistic children. Of course I’m not totally against rich people, and they really do have the best wine cellars.”
I knew K couldn’t come. He grew up in St Kilda — in a time when you could go to the pier and see the crabs playing on the bottom — but he had too much German in him. When he went camping he organised canoes, coffee machines, bread, fruit, a variety of cheeses and sausages, and sauerkraut.
He found it difficult when confronted with: “This place sucks, we’re going to grab some fishing rods and live on fish by some rivers up north somewhere until we get to Byron Bay or somewhere and we’ll go to a Buddhist meditation centre where we won’t fish for a while.”
This has sometimes been translated as, “she’ll be right mate.”
Enter the Bulgarian.
Kosio was a funny character. You often got the impression that he thought that God, tram ticket inspectors, and women were all designed specifically to destroy his life.
He comes into the room, lights a cigarette and sits.
“You get everything?” I ask.
“Yeah.” Says Kosio.
“We’ve got to go early tomorrow.”
“We see how we go.”
There is a distinct lack of enthusiasm in this last comment. Kosio has an annoying habit of sabotaging plans. He didn’t like failure, or putting energy into something that may fail — which often lead to failure.
“We should get off tomorrow, we have to be in the Blue Mountains by Thursday afternoon. Hanging around is wasting time.” All this time…time, time, time again.
“Doesn’t matter if we get there on Thursday.”
“Well that’s when the course starts, you can’t just rock up when you feel like it — they’re a disciplined lot these Buddhists. If you don’t want to go there, just tell me, cause I’m doing it, with or without you.” I don’t want to mess with the fucking Buddhists, I’ve got time for them.
“Yes I’ll go. I just don’t want to be stressed out running around all the time.”
“Tea?” Asks K, the diffuser of tension.
“I haven’t been one for the tropics really. I went up to Queensland some time in the 80s. It was so humid, sweat pouring out of everywhere, even places I didn’t think sweat could from — sex aside.” K pours carefully through a strainer. We didn’t use teabags here.
Kosio dumps a large teaspoon of sugar in his tea. I could see that I’d be to blame if this trip was not to his liking.
Why was I always in charge of other people’s dreams? It really wasn’t my problem, people are responsible for their own happiness — screw them all!
I’ll fish, he can sulk about his ex-wife and how she left him for a moronic Australian and… what’s the point in fighting him, drink your cuppa.
Deep down, something about gloom cheers me up. I need gloom, gloomy people, gloomy situations, they all make me feel positively happy. Like being the second most unpopular person at school — at least there’s someone else in the world copping more shit than you.
Chapter 5: The Trip Begins
Sitting at the kitchen table, trying to be firm in my plans to leave early. I’d eat some quark, cheese and little buns and meat, then I’d have a coffee and juice, and then straight into the car.
It’s wishful thinking.
We do pile the car full, but then there’s endless coffee till our hands are shaking and buns lining our guts like bread crumbs in a turkey and then, we are ready to go, until Kosio decides to rig up a stereo to the cigarette lighter.
“This will only take a minute.”
I have a big portable Sanyo stereo sitting on the back seat. It is a stupid idea to plug the thing in…
“We can listen to CDs while we are driving.”
“They’ll jump all over the place. Come on, I’ve already said goodbye to K, I hate being around too long after goodbyes.”
“No, it’ll be good.”
Kosio was known by many names, Chris, and Kusi, with his real name being Constantine – I think. His father was in the Bulgarian secret service, part and parcel of being a foreign diplomat in those days, and I think he inherited a healthy dose of the Cold War paranoia from him, being cautious not to reveal too much about his real identity. They called also called him Gligana in Bulgaria. It meant wild boar, which I felt my indicate his ability to survive rough, or perhaps his pig-headedness.
Thirty minutes later. K pops in and out of the house, and our goodbyes continue. It is soon after midday.
“I didn’t think you guys would get off early.” Said K.
“Hey, I’ve got it wired up! Turn it on.” Kosio shouts from underneath his precariously placed wires.
I reach back and flick the “on” switch. A little red flash accompanies the sound of a fuse blowing.
“Okay, it’s broken now, so I guess it really is time to go driving.”
“It’s probably not broken. I’ll have a look…”
“How about later, road trips aren’t really the same in driveways. Bye K, take care.”
“Yeah, seeya mate. I’ll call before I come back.” Kosio concedes technological defeat.
K just waves as we drive off into the distance.
Twenty kilometres on, we manage to get stuck in some sort of weekend rush hour. Looks like everyone just decided to pop out for a beer or something.
It’d be easy to do today, 30 degrees, another winter over, and the dawn of the silly season: “screw this it’s too hard and too hot, I’m going to nip off for a cold beer in the kid’s wading pool, hold the fort while I’m gone.”
“So, where are we off too?” Asks K
“Let’s just see how far we get.” It sounded pretty corny, but I couldn’t stop there, “yeah man, we have 2,500 kilometres of bitumen before us and paradise. The sun on our back and the wind in our hairs. Fishing rods poised for that first strike. We are like the Leyland Brothers.”
“The Leyland Brothers. They were on television and you like asked them to visit some place in Australia and they’d go with a little 16 mm camera and film it and show it on TV. There’s a Leyland Brothers world somewhere along the road, it looks like Ayers Rock”.
“We had some guy like that in Bulgaria.” He lit another cigarette. “But some guys asked him to go to this cave near some town right up in the mountains and he was attacked by wolves.”
“Yeah they live in the mountains.”
“And they kill people?”
“Of course, they are wild animals.”
“Well, the Leyland Brothers were never attacked by wolves.”
It’s hot, my shirt sticks to my back. The window open and my feet on the dashboard. Heading out of the city, a few trees, a few paddocks, then signs for majestic Moe.
Watching the weeds flowering by the side of the road, escape – to what?
Signs for the Alps, for Sydney and Lakes Entrance.
And the blue Mazda heads towards the coastline.
People think that fishing is about catching fish.
This is as far from the truth as we are from contacting extra-terrestrial life forms — which is probably not as far off as we think. Fishing is actually an age old ritual. It allows Australians the opportunity to communicate with each other without being too obvious or too “gay” about it. It’s particularly a male thing — Australian men traditionally lacking the emotional qualities of say a Spaniard (except for the Spanish Australians).
I hadn’t had a real conversation with my father during my lifetime, but I still remember the times we’d fished. It was an adventure which we could share, the water’s surface a gateway into another world, another place to day dream.
“There’s nothing here, let’s go.” My father would say after 15 minutes.
His theory was that if you weren’t going to get a bite in the first 15 minutes, then you never would, not in a million years. A theory a young child can easily understand. Although it was harder to understand the term “no fish” which, in those days of abundant sea life, meant you had only caught two or three fish, rather than a dozen.
It was a lesson in philosophy, of mind over matter. He’d keep saying that we didn’t get anything and I’d keep looking at these three fish in the bucket and think that we did have something and I’d say, “yeah, we got some in the bucket” and he’d still say we didn’t get anything and I’d look back in the bucket and shrug my shoulders and I’d look back at my father and think, “what the hell is he talking about?”
And then I thought that if you kept denying the existence of the fish that perhaps you reached a point where you couldn’t see them any more, that they existed only because you wanted them to exist and I’d get confused and just decide to go have some fun. Whether the fish were there or not there.
These philosophical fishing dilemmas Might explain why I used to get migraines.
Today no fish really means no fish.
My grandfather also fished with me (and for him “no fish” meant you couldn’t fill the freezer with whiting fillets).
There he would impart small wisdoms, which were occasionally non-fish related, like, “don’t go to those discos, those disco’s are bad.”
And, “always spit on your knots before you finish tying them.”
He didn’t say much, but when he did I knew it would be something that I wouldn’t really understand. All I could do was nod and catch as many fish as I could.
I was pretty good with my little rod — that hardly even reached above my small stature. I’d be out on Moreton bay in the tinny with my uncle and grandfather. My uncle would crack jokes that I understood but didn’t find funny, and as soon as I felt even a nibble on my line I’d whip it up and reel it in, pulling in fish after fish after fish.
My grandfather had an impressive style, with all the hallmarks of someone who’d be doing it for a while, he’d rock back gently and pierce the fish’s lip. And on the odd occasion when the fish had managed to swallow the bait he’d just ripped the hook out, guts and all, and the fish would look surprised for a moment and then it would die.
The blue Mazda continued.
Chapter 6: The Beach, or Lakes Entrance with the Elvis Presley Card Tin.
Lakes Entrance is a tourist town much like many others on Coastal Australia. It is however, at the entrance to a river, that probably flows past, or into a lake at some point.
When the Mazda finally splutters into town with its retreads and faded paint job, we head straight for a tackle shop.
Kosio doesn’t have any money as usual, but I’ve got a few hundred dollars saved up from my dishwashing job at Planet Hollywood. They promised to have Bruce Willis burst through the ventilation shaft one day, but all they did was pay me 13 odd dollars an hour and made me wash dishes. So when I spilt soup in the freezer one day, and it froze and the mop froze when I tried to mop it up and the water froze when I tried to free the mop, I thought that Bruce could come and kiss my arse and I walked out and never came back. It’s not as though he ever went back and cleaned up the high-rise building after Die Hard.
Anyway, the point of all this is I had some money when I walked into the store in Lakes Entrance and I wasn’t afraid to spend it. In terms of fishing equipment, at this point we only have two handlines and some rusty hooks and sinkers in a metal card tin with a picture of Elvis Presley on the front — which suggests to me that if I played my cards right I could end up being a very famous and very fat singer who gets his picture on card tins. I tackled the low tackle situation head on, grabbing shiny fish-like creatures, squid jigs, sinkers and sharp suicide hooks, ignoring the price tags and the fact that the cash was meant to last me another 2,500 kilometres. After a few minutes of frenzy I had all the tackle we needed for every conceivable situation ranging from the catching of snapper to landing marlin, or sharks — not that likely, but you never know — and half a dozen lures which I think look kind of pretty – being stoned as I am – along with some things that glow in the dark, and plus a brown rod with a yellow stripe.
“Why did you get all this stuff?” Asks Kosio as I walk out of the store not having a finger free to scratch my itchy nose.
“It’s just for fun. We are only reborn relatively few times as humans, mostly we are fish and stuff, I want to enjoy it before I get enlightened and go to a place where I’m above buying shiny things to catch fish.”
“You should have just used the handlines.”
Kosio didn’t see the necessity for extravagances, for he is a tight-arse. He’d been living in St Kilda in his one-bedroom flat, that smelt like a giant ash-tray, and I’d go around and visit and I’d always try to convince him to buy some basic utensils like a couple more forks, and perhaps a few knives. But he stuck with he kept to his two spoons, one knife and one fork policy. He’d open his tinned foods with a bowie knife and was over-joyed when baked beans started coming with peel-back lids. When you went over for dinner you’d have to fish out two dirty bowls, clean them, then, if the situation required it, take it in turns to use the fork. I eventually relented and bought and extra fork from St Vinnies.
I suspect the whole thing was a protest against his ex-wife. Bulgarian men didn’t seem to deal with creature comforts. They’d go out and have drunken fights with bears on cold winter nights, knee deep in snow, their nose’s almost falling off from frostbite, or throw knives so they landed in the walls near each other’s head, but you wouldn’t catch them dead buying a set of cutlery.
“Man you got to learn how to spend. That’s the capitalist doctrine, spend, spend, spend and get the Chinese to make our underwear.” The store’s door shuts behind us to the tingling ring of a little bell.
“I can’t understand how Australia is so rich. You don’t make anything, you spend everything, half the people are on the dole… What do people do? How does it work?”
“Better not to ask, we might jinx it. And we’re wasting time which could be spent catching Australian salmon.”
The tide is running out with the sunlight. I rush Gligana, urging him to quickly purchase his styrene cup full of coffee so we can get down to the jetty.
Kosio seems to like the fact we are somewhere besides Melbourne, I see the corner of his mouth rise a little bit, like things were starting to get brighter.
I jump out of the car clutching the new rod and the Elvis tin. An Australian, a typical Australian, an up-turned bucket under his arse and a cigarette in his mouth, slightly sun-tanned, sits watching the rushing river.
“Get anything?” I ask.
“Just got six salmon half hour ago.”
Oh my god, there’s fish! I can taste them now! I steady my excitement enough to tie on a hook and sinker, spitting on it before I finish. I cast out and wait. And I wait, and wait. I’m a good waiter, almost to the point of obsession, especially with women.
Kosio, scruffy and saint-like, walks slowly down with a handline, sipping his coffee and smoking his cigarette. Eventually he gets around to casting. He swirls the over his head like a Texan cowboy with a lasso – an illusion made all the more real by his broad-brimmed leather bushman’s hat – then releases it. It immediately swings back in, tangles around his arm, and ear, with the hook almost lodging in his eye as it swings down and knocks the cigarette from his mouth.
“Shit!” He winds back the tangled line and tries casting again, this time it lands a few metres away from the pier, into the water with a splash.
“So they get anything?” he asks.
“Yeah, this guy got a few before. I don’t know where the hell they’ve gone.”
As I say this the salmon catcher rises and leave. It’s a bad sign when the locals leave.
I wait, the prospect of catching a salmon diminishing with the sunlight. That sounds like a Leyland Brother’s line, “the prospect of catching a salmon diminished with the sunlight as Sheryl stoked the barbecue and prepared her marinades (not sure they even knew what a marinade was back then, or if one of the Leyland’s brothers wives was called Sheryl)”.
I don’t know why I am exited about this Australian salmon. It’s not as though they are like Canadian salmon, jumping up stream getting caught by grizzly bears.
It is a nice evening for not catching fish. A freshness in the air, relaxing the senses (as Sheryl prepares the marinades).
“You know, really I don’t care if I catch a fish.” I re-affirm out loud and go back to holding my line, praying for the smallest nibble to pounce upon.
Some Aboriginal guys come walking down the pier. They are mostly in their late teens and have healthy looking skin and thick, dark hair.
Without a word, a couple of them jump into the water and start to swim around the pylons. They cut off a few oysters, or some other shellfish – obviously they are not Jewish – and chuck them up onto the pier where a few of the kids throw them in a bag.
Ten minutes later they get up to the pier, their bag full, and they look at us with mischievous smiles.
“Yous should just jump in and grab them mate.” Says one of the smart-arse kids.
“They’d might all be gone now though.” Says another.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“Once they see me in the water they know they better fuckin’ keep away, otherwise they’ll have their fuckin’ throat slit pretty quick.”
I’m hoping he’s still talking about fish, I take it as quaint country humour rather than a violent threat.
I keep my little Swiss army knife close at hand, just in case I have to pull out the little tent repairing device on it and threaten to stitch them up good and proper – knowing that I’d have to use humour as I could never get the little blade out quick enough to defend myself in a knife fight. I suppose I could get the screw driver out and say, “don’t screw with me”, but they walk off with their fruits of the sea before I have a chance to try any new material.
And then an old Greek couple enter. Not as any sort of multi-cultural metaphor, just as a matter of fact. There’s a large man and a large woman with a moustache. They pull out a few rods and throw in a crab pot — which is a large, mostly oval, collapsible trap made of nylon rope attached to some more nylon rope. The crab pot has a nice piece of steak which looks good enough to eat, but which is no doubt slightly rotten as crabs don’t like fresh meat.
“We should get a steak sandwich for dinner. I like country steak.” I say.
“Yeah, why not? Get some more coffee, crash on the beach.”
I keep fishing, just in case. Please give me a pulse, the faint rhythm of a fish’s lips. We hadn’t planned ahead enough to work out where we were going to stay that night, we did have a tent, but that required putting up, so crashing on the beach sounded like a good option.
The crab pot triggers a craving for my own pot and I surreptitiously roll a cigarette with Kosio’s tobacco, placing a crushed up small piece of crushed up bud in the end so it would be gone in two decent puffs.
The Greek guy pulls up the crab pot. It already has six crabs in it. Kosio goes to investigate, leaving his handline supervised by a pylon post.
Come on god, give me a fish. I promise I won’t smoke any more.
The Greek guy keeps pulling in crabs, load after load as Kosio sips his coffee and chats to him. The river bed must be crawling with the little buggers.
The guy keeps pulling them in till he has a whole bucket full scraping away at the plastic. And the couple leave as the sun goes down and Kosio has to drag me away from the jetty, fishless and stoned.
Another Greek couple run the local Aussie fish and chip and takeaway shop that we walk into. Thank god, white Anglos never invented anything nearly as good as a souvlaki with garlic sauce.
The Greek guy from the pier walks in with his bucket.
He didn’t even offer us a crab when we were on the pier. If I’d caught a big bucket of crabs I would have offered him one. One at least. I probably would have given him three. I wouldn’t have taken them all to be turned into crab sticks.
My steak sandwich arrives all nicely wrapped up in a piece of wax paper and my mouth begins to water..
Kosio chews his lamb souvlaki, “I think I might try to find a trawler and go out and catch fish”.
“Just like that?”
“Yeah, the Greek man said that he could give me a contact in Eden.” He says with the knowing wink of cold war spy.
That was Kosio exactly. He’d be as depressed as a cane toad on a busy highway, then he’d come up with some wacky plan or scheme. Past ones had included elephant safaris to Fraser Island and exporting starfish skeletons and carp to Europe.
I could see that this was one of those pie in the sky but I nonetheless felt the need to dissuade him from doing it, mainly due to the fact that if he did it I’d be left without a driver or car.
“Why would you want to be miles from the coastline, in pitch black, rolling around in the waves, wet, and trying to fend off sharks? I knew a guy called Wayne, from the Gold Coast, who had worked on trawlers. He reckoned you had to shoot them with a 303 on occasions”.
“It’d be good. Go out for a while, save some money.”
“Not for me thanks.” I chucked at the first sign of a swell. And the thought of some huge school of scavengers gnawing away at my still living bones as I inhaled water into my lungs, was something that I would rather not think about.
There was something mysterious about trawler crews though. Out in the middle of nowhere, dragging these huge nets around the depths of a largely unexplored ocean floor that’s residents included giant squid that were able to attack sperm whales. They were lunatics.
After dinner we head over a long footbridge with our sleeping bags and a small bottle of Jack Daniels and coke, passing the last of the day’s swimmers and stragglers, to a small island opposite the town. We head to the surf beach I stand and let the sound pound into my ears as Kosio gets the fire started.
He’s always burning something. A fact which landed him into a lot of hot water, when, on his first few weeks in Australia, he decided to go and light a little fire below a gum tree on a total fire ban day.
I smoke another spliff. “I’m off for a walk, see you in a minute.”
Chapter 7: Le Voyage du Petit Prince
The island by Lakes Entrance, is a small Island and is in dire need of exploring. My primary objective is to see if the trees are still standing and that the Island has not lost its edge. For what is an island without an edge?
I weave in an out of thick scratching scrub that lines the island’s inner shore, making patterns with my torch like the underside of a UFO does when it hovers over cow paddocks. It seems like high tide, if I’m not mistaken, and the nearly full moon rises over the trees. Which must make sense, since the moon affects the tides.
It is good to make sense of things.
I spot a little sleeping snake, a 15 centimetre-long tiger snake sitting slightly off my path. I find a stick and gently prod it, just one soft touch, for they don’t like being poked too hard.
It doesn’t react, so I poke it a little more just to prove that it doesn’t like being poked too much. But it still won’t bite! Perhaps it’s just too young to know it shouldn’t like being poked. Perhaps it’s dead.
I poke it again, just to see once and for all, and this time it looks up at me as if to say, “are you poking me? I don’t see anyone else here, so you must be poking me!” And it bites the stick in an effort to persuade the object from poking it a forth time, then slithers off slowly.
I liked this snake, it was particularly patient. Not at all like the grumpy old snakes who used to bite and bite when I poked them with rakes on Brocky’s farm in Nutfield. There’s something about poking snakes with sticks that I find interesting. I really understand where the Crocodile Hunter is coming from.
I suddenly realise I’m not in the city and I have sand between my toes. I reach the entrance to the lakes and water rushes out to sea. The tide is turning. I hook on a pilchard and some glowing stuff and throw it into the darkness. My line sweeps in and snags and I cut it. And the glowing stuff drifts out to start a new life in New Zealand, or Argentina.
The bank’s sand slides into the river’s mouth and I think that if I’m not careful I’ll go with it just before I jump to safety and breath a sigh of relief.
The island’s edge turns back towards the fire, in the distance, somewhere. All Islands have this nice quality to them. If you follow the edge, you’ll eventually get back to the point where you started from. Kind of like walking around in circles, or the feeling you get at the ending to a movie at a cinema, when the lights come on and your realise you’re in the same chair that you were when you sat down ninety minutes ago. Or that feeling Dorothy had when she came back to Kansas in the Wizard of Oz and was told that it was all a dream. After a few minutes I get back to where I started from.
I kick sand into the water and little green iridescent glowing balls appear like a flash in the pan.
Apparently it’s the lice lighting up. Don’t ask me why they do it, they just do. And the sand blows gently in the breeze as Kosio’s orange face stares into the fire as he passes me a polystyrene coffee cup with some JD and coke.
The sun is charming as it rises over the ocean. Something worth waking up to.
Still, I hate sleeping on beaches, sand sticking in places you’d rather not have it.
The usual reds, oranges and purples appear as the sea becomes blue-green again. I wash my face and sweaty body in the salty shallows, got to get going before the rangers come and kick us off.
“I hate sand” I say.
Kosio tries to hit the snooze button, but it’s not there and he has to pull his sleeping bag over his eyes. I don’t expect him up for a while, so I run over to town and buy a takeaway coffee.
Pelicans perch on pylons; trawlers with thick nylon nets sit by the docks; people buy milk; I return to the beach, place the coffee in the sand near Kosio’s face, the smell stirs him into action.
“Morning”, he says.
“Sorry, I only had two bucks on me, so I only got one coffee. You can have a bit if you like” I say, then add “You better roll up your sleeping bag, they might fine us for being vagrants or something”.
“Don’t worry about it”, he says with a wry smile, sand stuck to half of his face. Then he sits up and rolls a cigarette.
Kosio had a history of defying authorities, in Bulgaria he used to hang around punk rockers, playing decadent Western punk music, and hitching around the country drinking vodka, having adventures and getting into trouble, rather than working to progress the glorious workers’ paradise. Though as he said, as long as it wasn’t overtly political, you’d get away with it. And if he got arrested his dad would be able to pull a few strings to get him out.
I go down to the surf to have a go at catching some salmon for breakfast but no fish bite — not even one nibble, as I sip my cafe latte and wait for Kosio to finish his cigarette. I look out into the ocean as gentle waves lap on the sand, the sun giving the surface a shiny silken layer like some magic potion in a fairytale.
Twenty minutes later we are back at the car. Kosio, sand stuck to his stubbly chin, and bleary eyed, opens the Mazda’s door and plugs some device into the lighter socket.
“What’s that?” I say as I sit on the bonnet absorbing the sun.
“It’s a what-you-call it? A water boiler, thing. I just want to make a coffee first.”
The water boiler thing, which Kosio had bought from a camping shop in Melbourne, takes twenty minutes to magically turn a cup of cold water into a cup of tepid water.
Eventually Kosio gives up and hits the road again sipping his warm instant coffee and sugar with another cigarette.
Chapter 8 Towards Eden
Dark tar contrasts well with the lush green of a temperate rainforest.
As the Mazda cruises by it sprays residual dew into the ferns and undergrowth as groups of rosy rosellas rise to roost, chirping in protest.
Tall tree trunks, brown, and greyish-white, bark peeling off in huge strips, falling to the forest floor.
It is a splendid day to be going to a place called Eden.
“The air’s so fresh out here!”
The sight of trees going by is naturally intoxicating. I take a small puff on my post-breakfast joint.
“We better watch out for cops if you’re smoking that.”
“Nah, it’s all right.”
Kosio stares straight out of the windscreen with some intensity. It looks as though some cosmic revelation is being passed into his brain, and he has to concentrate so as not to miss it.
“I like the name of this Eden place. I imagine some sort of jungle.” He exclaims finally.
The Mazda flies upward on a spirally road that leads through the forest. Like the road to seventh heaven.
“This is like the jungle. I might stay here one day.” Continues Kosio.
“What would you do?”
“Live in a shack, buy a mobile phone, eat mushrooms from the forest. Maybe make jewellery and catch rabbits or grow tomatoes.”
I appreciated the landscape with just as much enthusiasm as Kosio, but my mind was still stubbornly focussed further north. To the mangoes.
“I have to be able to grow mangoes. That’s all I know — mangoes. Man goes to grow mangoes…”
We arrive at a town in a forest on the border with Victoria and New South Wales, a place called Genoa, I check out the headlines of the newspaper, Michael Hutchence from the band INXS found naked and hung, nothing at all about tropical fruit.
As the tall trees circle me I chew on a muffin and think of how William Burroughs only got a paragraph when he died — even though he’d written about gay perverted pirates who used to get sexual pleasure from hangings.
I thought he’d be the sort of person to die like Michael Hutchence. But writers, as a whole, aren’t renowned for their spectacular deaths, they are too busy sitting indoors on hot days or where the weather is a bit inclement, cold, windy, stormy etc. At other times they are at the pub talking to their friends about how depressing the weather is.
“Do you know how to grow tomatoes?” I ask Kosio.
“I grew them once.”
“How did you go?”
“Well the flowers all fell off. It was the year that Chernobyl blew up. I didn’t try again, it takes too long to grow anyway.”
“Do you have reactors in Bulgaria?”
“Yeah, we’ve got the biggest in Europe.” He claims proudly. “These guys used to fish by them. They got these huge fish.”
“Is it all right to eat stuff from there?”
“Yes, it’s okay! It’s just this hot water coming out after they make electricity. The fish love it.”
He starts the car again. “You people don’t know anything about nuclear power plants.”
“I think they might be radioactive.”
“Ah, you don’t know anything.”
“You don’t know anything either.”
I turn on the radio as I imagine this small figure in the Bulgarian countryside, carrying a rod and a bag in the shadow of these huge white stacks.
Some time later we realise that we have been travelling kind of south-east instead of north. And, since we were almost in a place called Mallacoota, we decide to visit it before leaving Victoria.
Mallacoota, sometime later.
The Mazda drives up a road to the top of a hill. From that hill we see the mouth of an inlet, criss-crossed with exposed sand banks and a network of fast flowing water — a picture worthy of a coffee-table book.
Waves crash in and ripple up onto the beach beyond with a foamy whitewash that blows around in the breeze. The ocean hums and air whistles.
“I might live around here one day.” Says Kosio again.
“You’re going to say that at every place, aren’t you.” I start to walk down to the water, “I’ve got to swim, it’s just too hot.”
I traverse the many shallow streams then run onto a large exposed sandbank, throwing my towel on some ground that I think might stay dry, and I dive into the rushing water of the inlet, then stand and wade through the shallower waters, emerging every once in a while to traverse a few more metres of exposed sand.
Before me and the main beach, one last bit of deepish river, about 10 metres wide, running fast out to sea.
I struggle, trying to fight the water with breath stroke, my many-times dislocated right arm not allowing me the freedom of freestyle, and I am soon hit by the fear. The fear of a giant octopus ripping my limbs off and pulling me under with its many arms. The ocean keeps pulling me towards it and I keep swimming for dear life, seeing shadows dart about in the water, in the corner of my eye eight arms waving around in an attempt to catch me and draw me into its deadly beak, just as he had done at Tallebudgera creek when I was a boy. I struggle on, weaving and floating and weaving and stroking like a frog until I hit the other bank.
I laugh a nervous little laugh as I stand metres from where the river meets the waves.
There is nothing but the ocean. The sound of the ocean.
Kosio doesn’t follow this far. I know nothing of nuclear power plants — he knows nothing of strong currents. I sit on the beach before the waves, being showered by sea spray. No bloody octopus was going to get me today.
Still in Mallacoota, at a place called Beth’s Deli.
A foreign girl sits at a table with her foreign friend. They drink coffee and order some chocolate cake. Kosio notices his friend looking at one of the women, a dark-haired lady with a round soft face. He smokes a cigarette, his hair still wet from a dip in the shallower areas of the mouth of the Mallacoota Inlet.
The women get up to leave. Kosio’s companion, a red-haired man with a small gap in his front teeth, follows the foreigner’s face — transfixed.
He casts an absent minded smile in her direction as she leaves. She glances back and smiles, just for ein moment.
Kosio gets a smile, but is too busy designing his latest shack and new existence, to catch it.
John, the man with the gap in his teeth, eats his pumpkin fritter with turkey and has a very nice cup of coffee, the best he’s had in days.
“She looks like this Swiss girl Petra I met a few years ago,” John says, a strange feeling passes through his body. A warm and fuzzy feeling he hasn’t felt for a while.
The opposite of indigestion, what’s it called? Thinks John.
Lust? Love? It can’t be love I only just lay eyes upon her.
He goes back to his fritter and scratches his head in confusion.
Something tells me she is an angel walking on the earth. What a stupid clichéd thought.
He shakes his head to try and snap himself out of it, taking a good gulp of coffee in the process.
They were here to fish.
But they have caught no fish today.
Chapter Nine: the quick and the dead
Two strangers walk into a shop in the small seaside town of Eden, New South Wales.
There are about 10 men in that shop. They chat quietly, their bums resting on a row of deep freezers, their arm’s crossed, strong and sturdy, they are seamen.
One of the strangers, with long hair, goes to purchase a worm.
“Are worms good for catching salmon?”
“A bit of alfoil would do just as well.” He wraps up the worm in an old newspaper.
The second stranger, a Bulgarian man, looks around and thinks, “these men must be waiting for food”. But then he sees that there is no cooking facilities and he becomes suspicious.
The group barely takes much notice of the strangers. Kosio continues to analyse the situation.
“Maybe this is the local hang-out for the men. Interesting, fish shop hang-out.” He thinks. He looks around and notices there is no device for making coffee. His mind continues to tick over, now in panic, “how could they have a hang-out without coffee? Maybe they’re police.” He cautiously goes over to his companion, making sure not to look directly at the men, trying not to arouse suspicion with any sudden movement. “They might be from the government, or the credit card agency”, he thinks.
“There’s no coffee here.” Kosio says to his companion.
John, a little hazy in the eyes, and swaying slightly, takes a moment to generate a response. He looks around the shop, with its lines of fishing rods, nets, assorted pieces of equipment and group of loitering lads. He looks back at Kosio.
“This is a tackle shop, we’ll have to go somewhere else for coffee.”
“Yeah, we should go somewhere else.” Kosio nods his head knowingly. He had around $2,000 in unpaid credit card bills so couldn’t risk it there any longer.
John, sorts through his wallet. “Hang on, I’ll just pay for this worm.”
The shop owner accepts the stranger’s money with a sarcastic smile. $4.50, they were big spenders.
A postman walks into the shop as the strangers leave, moments later the many men come out with letters in their hands.
“Why did you think there would be coffee here?” asks John.
Kosio, noticing the exiting men, “oh, I thought they might be cops or something.”
“Okay, that’s the last time you smoke my pot.” John says firmly.
“Why, cops hang around the place sometimes.” Kosio doesn’t however, feel well and secretly agrees with John.
John, for fun, and because he is feeling like a dickhead, decides to try and promote some more paranoia.
“Yeah, we better watch out, they might be undercover fishing licence inspectors.” But then he forgets that he is trying to scare Kosio and he starts thinking the dudes are fishing licence inspectors.
John retreats to the safety behind his dark glasses, as long as the world couldn’t see his eyes, he was okay. “There’s a tea-house down there, let’s get a coffee.”
His plan has backfired.
He’s a little smart arse, thinks Kosio, as he backs slowly away from the fishing licence inspectors.
Later, in a tea-house.
It is a quiet day, Myrtle is making some coffee for the nice young fellas at table five. She places the mugs carefully on the floral tray and lifts it with a concentration that only old age can bring. She waddles over, slowly, carefully. She sees the shag rug in her way and makes sure she avoids an accident and its possible accompanying damage to her good hip.
“So what brings you boys to town?” Asks Myrtle on arrival.
Kosio and John take their mugs from the tray.
“Oh, I’m doing research on a book.” Says John.
“Oh, it’s a nice day for it.” Says Myrtle, no paying particular attention.
“Yeah, it’s a spy book, this Agent Juanito character, who has got this friend called Agatha who’s from Venus, has to investigate an international conspiracy involving some fishing thing. A fishing fleet or something…”
Myrtle turns her attention to Kosio. “And what about you dear? Where are you from?”
“He’s originally from Bulgaria, he’s up here looking for a nice house and a wife.” Adds John.
“My husband was a foreigner. We get a few in here you know with the ah, harbour, being ah, down there. He was Spanish.”
Kosio has a sudden inspiration. “Yeah, maybe I’ll find some wife here and go fishing on the boats. It’s a nice spot.”
Damn it, thinks John, he’s a turncoat, he’d ditch me in a minute for a woman and a boat. What happened to mateship?
“Well, Eden is a nice spot, I hope you enjoy yourselves.” Says Myrtle then turns and walks away.
“Jesus, this coffee is crap.” Says John.
“Ah, it’s okay.” Kosio takes another sip and quickly re-assesses, “actually it is a bit crap.” He spoons some sugar into the cup thinking he could really live in this town.
From the top of a hill in Eden I see a harbour; wharves lined with sheds and vessels and brightly coloured plastic nets.
Kosio has decided that he now wants to live in Eden. He has fallen in love with the place. I can’t help thinking that there is something better just up the road.
I think of the girl in Mallacoota, she seemed like an angel. I shake my head, but the thought remains deep down there nibbling like a small fish.
We drive down to one of the wharves, with a worm and some anchovies, past an old Aboriginal man who sits on an up-turned bucket with his rod hanging over the edge.
With his grey hair and tanned skin, he looks quite similar to my grandfather, obviously age brings certain uniformities, wrinkles and bladder problems.
Most of the world, however, has been fighting for so many centuries to prove that we are all different — or more precisely, different in a superior way. The British have Irish jokes, the Christians had the crusades and the Australians used terra nullus, to indicate that civilisation meant housing estates not humpies.
I’d realised that we whites were meant to be superior when I was around ten and I’d said to my aunty, after getting severe sun stroke, that I thought the Aboriginals were blessed with good skin for our climate. For our skin, especially with our Irish ancestry, was too white and got burnt too easily.
She looked at me, puzzled. “Blest? I don’t think so”, she scoffed.
It was a case of man making God in his own image. In my youthful naivety I hadn’t realised that God was a white man, and that the best he could hope for with the black fellas was to get them to wear clothes.
We began fishing again.
It is quiet; a man catches a starfish. It must be a starfish that is a horrible foreign feral starfish that eats things that the nice fish would eat, he leaves the creature, arms rippling as it suffocates, on the wharf.
I don’t want to interfere with nature, so I don’t touch. A good documentarian doesn’t touch.
“In the next town I might pretend to be a starfish salesman. ‘Do you have any starfish for sale?'” Says Kosio.
“I think I might keep working on my research writer persona, in case someone thinks I’m a genius or something and offers to give me cash for writing some crap.”
“Come to think of it, I’ve thinking about these internet gurus. That’s what I might do, buy a computer, make some photographs or something, some landscapes. You know, sell them…”
“The internet? That’s never going to amount to anything. It’s just a flash in the pan.”
After the starfish incident the same fisherman accidentally hooks a seagull. It obviously wasn’t his day, but he was providing some entertainment, even though it bordered on being masochistic.
Everyone hated seagulls, but since they cleaned up the guts and bits of bait fish that would otherwise fowl the air whilst fishing, we tolerate them as we tolerate vacuum cleaners and other noisy devices.
The man carefully reels in his line as the seagull tries to escape, flying into the air, only to crash to the water’s surface. The hook has lodged into one of its wings, so it is unable to fly much higher than a chicken — it is like seeing an Indonesian trying to catch a fruit bat with a kite and a hook — as they do there.
The bird, although shaken, goes back to its squawking friends as soon as it is unhooked — we don’t have any chips to ease its pain.
Seagulls, with their many one-eyed and one-legged members, must be prone to being involved in such incidents. Lets face it, they’re pretty stupid creatures.
The worm had run out and we had picked up some pilchards, with immediate results. My line jerks and my rod arches. I reel in a stripey mackerel — we were going to eat fish tonight!
Fishing is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. When you are just looking at the water, enjoying the clouds, or having a beer or rolling a joint. You fool yourself into believing that you are in control. You think that it is you who controls your destiny. It’s probably what the mackerel down there are thinking. No, you are not in control, not at all. Life is always changing, so is your destiny.
Of course, this might just be crap. Who knows?
I pull in another nice-sized fish which flaps on the wharf with its green and black striped back. So much vitality in this creature, so much verve. Its tail beating the wooden pier like a one armed drummer playing his death song.
Soon Kosio had one, it takes him by surprise, and his cigarette drops out of his mouth as he reels in his handline. We cast again and within moments, more mackerel — there is a whole shoal, attacking anything that moves.
Mackerel are very vicious fish. When small, they are chased by tuna, tailor and kingfish. When larger they strike back and head to the ocean to pillage smaller bait fish like Vikings on a summer holiday to the coast of England. They were, the mackerel and not the Vikings, fast and therefore provided good sport, their streamlined bodies looking like silver arrows as they dart and streak a few metres below the surface. All we can see are flashes of light, criss-crossing, a kind of underwater meteor shower.
These fish act on instinct — they see, identify, bite. They also put up a decent fight when they run, almost jumping out of the water.
The old Aboriginal guy, down the wharf a bit, keeps rocking back and forth, pulling in fish, then quickly casting again. The starfish and seagull catcher comes sheepishly over and asks to buy some bait from us.
I feel sorry for him, for he obviously a bit of a loser.
“Ah, just have some, we won’t use any more today.” I say with a victorious smile and a cigarette in one hand — time to rest on my laurels I think.
Time for the electric barbecues.
Every book seems to have a cooking segment these days.
Part of the starving artist syndrome perhaps. The writer has gone so mad from hunger that he thinks he can invent food, just as he invents stories…
Back in colonial times people really appreciated a bag of fish — it meant a meal. Someone who could bring home a bag of fish was considered useful in the same way that poets are not. There were probably not many poets in this time, they would’ve been knocked on the head when returning home with no fish and a page of flowery sentiment that they’d written under a tree.
“We could read it after dinner,” the scribe would say rubbing his noggin, “entertain us all.”
“Stupid,” would say his father, “we don’t have any dinner! That’s what we sent you out for.” Whack! Across the head.
“Ouch!” would say the poet, and then he tried to think of something to rhyme with the word and couldn’t, for his family didn’t have a couch.
My cooking segment could not commence as the barbecue was covered in shit. Not shit shit but the charcoaled remnants of sausage fat, onions and fish. I had to clean it vigorously before I could even put a pot on. Refusing to contemplate letting the fine fish flesh touch the naked hot plate, with its simmering primordial life.
I didn’t know how to cook this mackerel. I had the contents of my Brunswick kitchen in a cardboard box. No onions or lemons, only soy sauce, a bit of ginger and many packaged herbs and spices. Tonight, as the stars slowly cruised the sky, by the pond of the caravan park that I had persuaded Kosio to fork out $10, I was only inspired to throw a few mackerel fillets into a pan, pour olive oil, add chilli and ginger and drown it in soy sauce. In another pot I boiled white rice. Kosio thought this was quite nice as he extracted many small bones from his mouth. It tasted okay, a wild flavour, slightly oily.
And, both of us satisfied, the mosquitos began feasting on my ankles, puffing themselves up with blood.
Ray Doogue, in the Saltwater Fisherman (1976), says that mackerel are “first rate” when soused — which is pickled, for the non baby boomers. Having no sousing equipment, I was unable to try this process but would suggest it is a good idea in Australia’s summer if you have an un-refrigerated esky, such as ours and plan to not to let your fish go off over night, which they invariably do.
Ray Doogue also suggests eating hapuku, or groper, livers. He goes on to caution though, that at certain times of the year these livers can have very high vitamin A and D levels which can cause headaches, vomiting, peeling of the skin around the mouth, on the hands and, in a bad case, all over the body.
Hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I clean the blood and scales from my knife, festering bins of fish heads stand nearby in accordance with the caravan park’s orders:
This Is a Designated Fish Cleaning Spot, Please Dispose of Carcasses and Guts in (the) Designated Bin.
I throw the severed heads of my many mackerel into the pond, for the eels to eat, like a normal person who realises that people who run caravan parks just make up rules because they have nothing better to do. Besides, they’d charged us 40 cents to cook our fish, with their metered hot plates. It was hardly even on long enough to boil our one-cup espresso machine — which we obviously had to take turns in using. Bloody tight-arses.
Since we had fish that would last till breakfast — covered in salt in the un-refrigerated esky — I kind of thought that we should have a break in the morning and look at something touristy.
We put plans off till the morning, tired, last night’s sleep inadequate — as so many nights in summer are. Frogs croak and other things make funny sounds.
Birds sing in the orange haze of morning. Cicadas and butterflies float across the surface of the pond, as fish jump into the air to try and catch them, and swans dunk their heads under to catch the fish.
A small crab has made its way onto the Mazda’s dewy windscreen and sits dead on the windscreen wiper. Spiky swamp grasses jot out from the swamp water, like a funny head of hair. I write in my ideas book:
Blue pen, vague imitation of Lisa Simpson
As two black swans cross a lake in Eden
A crab sits on the windscreen wipers
Ten centimetres by four centimetres deep
Eyes black metallic pins
Confronting the driver.
Untitled poem, 1997.
Kosio opens the car door. The tent has been packed and he holds a plastic cup of coffee. He starts the engine and the car splutters towards movement.
Lonely Planet Australia, page 276: Killer Whale Museum.
“At the intriguing Killer Whale Museum, you can learn about the whaler, who, in 1891, was swallowed by a whale and cut out of its guts, unharmed, a while later. Blah, blah, blah, admission $4.” I say.
“Where is it?” asks Kosio.
“Don’t know. In Eden somewhere.” I say.
“Doesn’t it say?”
“No, doesn’t say.”
“It’s got to say, they can’t tell us about the whales museum and not say where it is.”
“Well, they didn’t.”
“Did you look?”
“Yeah, I looked.” I open the book again searching for the page I have just lost, not sure whether I really actually looked — bloody travel guides.
“I don’t trust this intriguing business. They’re always using words like intriguing and quaint when they really mean there’s only a butt ugly plastic whale model that looks like it was made by some kindergarten kids high on red cordial.” I find the page and re-read, “no, it doesn’t say.”
“Maybe we should go there.”
“Yeah, why not? It’s got to be around here somewhere.” I toss the crappy guide into the back seat.
The blue Mazda went up and down the hill searching for Old Tom the killer whale. Then, just as hope was fraying came the cry, “there she blows!”
We fork over some dough and walk into the museum. Immediately I am stunned by the realisation that this place is really cool. I walk around in absolute awe. All these fishing facts and skeletons and bits of Aboriginal stuff. A very eclectic and even eccentric collection of artefacts, but real stuff — with blood stains on it!
I loved museums, especially the ones that displayed piles of rocks alongside piles of guns and piles of butterflies, like the old one in Brisbane which was eventually abandoned because the building was being eaten by termites. I used to run around losing my grandfather for what seemed like hours checking out the more gruesome and dangerous items I could find.
There was also the old Nimbin museum which was basically a replica of a Brunswick Street (art-farty, district of Melbourne if you haven’t been there) junk shop, but less sophisticated in that they only had bits of rusted iron and old glass bottles, that some hippies high on mushrooms had dug up in their back paddocks. That too has gone, it went about the same time the fancy ice-cream shop came to town.
That ice-cream shop was the demise of Nimbin. That and all the drugs everyone took.
“There should be a museum to house all the old museums,” I think as I’m suddenly stunned by a harpoon.
“Harpoons! Dead whales! Man, this is cool.” I inspect the artefacts of death, ignoring whaling sanctuaries, Greenpeace and the outside world for a moment.
Kosio inspects a harpoon with explosive heads. “If we had one of these, and a boat…” the possibilities were endless.
Whaling, as well as being somewhat brutal, is also extremely romantic. Although there were only a couple of coastal town’s, like Eden, where whaling actually occurred. It had as important an impact as gold did for places like Ballarat, Melbourne and the little town of Woods Point, high up in the Victorian Alps, which has a nice little pub with a stuffed trout on the wall above the dart board.
In pre-colonial times Aboriginals enlisted the help of killer whales to hunt seals. The whales would herd seals into Twofold Bay, where Eden is located, and when the seals tried to escape onto the beach the local Aboriginals would run out and bludgeon them to death.
When the white man came, they noticed the symbiotic relationship that the people and the whales had established and they set about exploiting it. They enlisted the help of the black man and the killer whales to try and catch humpbacks — obviously the whales needed some middle men they could trust.
“Yeah white man,” the black man would say, “these out pet killer whales. They only listened to black man you know, your skins too shiny, scare them fellas off. You give us fifty dollar and we have a word to them in their ear, get you some big humpback, you know.”
They would then lead the whalers out to the killer whale pods, where Old Tom, the oldest of the killer whales, would lead them to the humpbacks, where the white fellas would row around poking sharp metal things into them. Just like they do with the stuffed trout above the dart board in the pub at Woods Point.
And so it was, the men harvested the humpbacks and other whales around Twofold Bay and boiled them up for soap and other assorted products. As reward the killer whales would get their commission, 5% of the gross, which equated to all the whale’s tongues they could eat.
All was going well, until one year, without warning, the whales ran out, and Old Tom, out of despair, took his own life, by jumping out of the surf onto a rocky headland.
And so the rest of the killer whales had to go back to killing seals and dolphins again. And the white humans started museums and tackle shops.
Groovy looking plastic killer whales and other assorted miniature animals packed the gift shop, which, as everyone knows, is the best bit of a museum. I’m excited, remembering trips to the Giant Cow and Big Pineapple in Queensland. There’s something intoxicating about the smell of brand new plastic knick-knacks, rulers and erasers. I think it my be the sweet chemicals and petroleum they put in them, like that nice feeling you get when you’re filling up the petrol tank of the car and the fumes waft up to your nose.
“I got to get one of these plastic dolphins. Oh, but the killer whales are cuter.”
“How do you say in English, Kitsch?” asks Kosio.
“Yeah, kitsch. “
“No, that’s how we say it, we just say kitsch.”
“But what about normal people?”
“I am a normal person, do you think I speak another language?”
“Well I can’t understand you sometimes.”
I hadn’t been aware of this communication barrier up until now and I felt it retrospect that it may have contributed to many occasions where the two of squabbled. Still, I don’t think you can call someone your friend until you’re willing to have a bit of a barney with them.
Two women walk in as I hold up a killer whale rubber. I nudge Kosio in the ribs, “hey, they’re the girls from Mallacoota.”
“We were just there this morning.”
“Was that what it was called?”
“Man, you got to pay more attention.”
“I can’t remember all these stupid names.”
“Maybe I should go talk to her.”
“Come on, you are getting a bit obsessed aren’t you.” Kosio already had had a taste of my obsessive nature when I was courting my last girlfriend Kathy as well as when I was interested in this German girl called Sunny whom they met at some rave in the Victorian countryside.
I lower my voice, “what do you mean obsessed?”
“You were obsessed with Sunny, you talked about her all the time. Even though she was a lesbian”
“I think she was bi. But this might be different…”
“Well the thing is you just can’t go for every foreign woman you see, you have to play it cool.”
And then I see her face again and I smile like a complete moron, I don’t care if it is obsession, or love, or what-the-hell-ever.
“Don’t get too irrational”, say Kosio, seeing that look in my eyes.
But I am without hope, as the woman walks over with her friend to pay for her ticket I open my mouth and say with a mild mousy squeak, “how’s it going?”
After a small pause, where she is trying to work out if the question is directed at her, and given my Australian accent whether I was saying ‘owl’ of ‘how’, but working out that an owl would be out of context here, she replies. “Good.” My plans don’t extend much beyond this first contact, but luckily the woman is willing to continue the conversation. “Have you been inside this museum?”
I stare into her eyes, as though she has asked whether I have been living in the belly of whale for the last month. “Yes, I’ve just been in.”
“Is it good for a visit?”
“I can honestly say it is the best whale museum I have ever been too. There’s a lot of information about whales in there, and you wouldn’t want to miss it.”
“I’m going out for a cigarette and coffee”, says Kosio rolling his eyes.
“I think I saw you and your friend in Mallacoota this morning. So are you heading north?” I ask.
“Yes”, she says, “I am travelling with my friend”, she points to her friend who is buying entry tickets and I think they don’t really look like a gay couple.
“Are you travelling to the north with your friend?”, She adds, as she assesses whether Kosio and I might be gay. ‘I mean’, she thinks in Swiss German, ‘he was very enthusiastic about museums, which is not usually a very manly trait’.
“Yes”, thinking that maybe I should add that we had separate sleeping bags and all that just friends and, in case she is interested in Kosio, that he is a bit depressive at times and is hard on women due to a terrible, and still very recent, break up with his wife, but that he still very much likes women as I also do, but refrain from doing so.
The Woman’s friend returns.
“Well, we should enter this museum as well I think” she says.
“Yes, enjoy” I say, still starstruck. “Take care of yourself”.
And she enters the museum chatting to her friend. Her friend turns and gives me the once over before they return to their conversation.
I contemplate hanging out outside until they are finished with a handful of hibiscus flowers to present to her and her friend, but Koiso will have nothing of it, suggesting that it would be like stalking rather than the obviously romantic gesture it would be.
I gave an Austrian woman a hibiscus flower many years ago when living on the dole at a backpackers in Byron Bay in 1993. There was nothing to it, she was just ravelling through, I had just enjoyed spending time on the beach with her, sun-baking topless, her, not me, I burnt too easily, and I just wanted to give her something special when she departed. She gave me a little smile in return, which was enough for me.
I leave thinking that myself and this woman are just sheep passing each other in the night, giving each other a little polite baa, but ultimately heading to our own patch of the paddock to each grass.
Back down the pier we use pieces of yesterday’s mackerel for bait. There’s a German saying that a German crime writer called Jan Weinart, who I met in Byron Bay, again in 1993, told me when he invited me to stay at his place in Hamburg: guests and fish should go off in three days. In an Australian summer the guest might not be turfed out after the three days, but fish start to get on the nose within a few hours. A store bought fish can go off whilst you’re having a cup of tea and scones in Brisbane — since we caught mackerel yesterday they have fared a little better than that, but already their flesh has softened too much to stay on the hook long.
Nothing’s biting These fish are fussy creatures. They only like particular baits at particular times and at a particular freshness. I decide that this bait hasn’t aged well and is only fit for crabs and worms. I chuck it into the water to Kosio’s dismay.
“That fish is okay!” He calls out in horror, I think expecting that we might be having it for lunch.
“Nah,” I say, holding the last smelly fish at arms length, “We’ll get some more later. Maybe we should head north, we might bump into those girls from the museum”.
“Man, forget about these women, there are plenty of women in the ocean. You get too obsessed with these women. They don’t like it, you have to ignore them completely for them to like you. You should just keep to your fishing.”
“Well I think I smell a bit too much at the moment to worry about any romantic complications.”
“I don’t know, women don’t care too much about fish smell.” Kosio says without a hint of irony in his voice, stretching back on the pier with another cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He has about a kilo of tobacco in the car, this illegal stuff he bought of some Russian in St Kilda. Only cost him about $30 or something.
We head north again our one impending appointment at the Vipassana meditation centre in the blue mountains looming ever nearer. Ten days without drugs, cigarettes, alcohol. No intoxicants what-so-ever — even coffee. Ten days without talking, eating anything substantial after midday, or sleeping in past 4.30 a.m.
I wasn’t fit for it, and I was pretty sure Kosio wasn’t either.
Today, all I felt fit for was love something the Buddhists would say is impermanent, and like Kosio, not something to get obsessed about. It was true, and I contemplated this for the rest of the day as I scanned the occupants of cars we passed along the Princess Highway to see if I cold get a glimpse of her again.
Chapter 10: Cheesy, but not cheesy enough
The car pulled away from the wharf.
“Your going to have to stop smoking when you get to the meditation centre you know.”
“Yeah, I know, you don’t have to tell me.”
“No, I was just saying, I thought you might want to cut down before you arrive.”
There is silence for a second as Kosio inhales deeply, obviously pissed off. I wasn’t sure whether he was concerned about not being able to smoke or about me reminding him of the fact.
“Well, you’ll have to stop smoking pot.”
“Yeah, I’m not smoking nothing for the next few days. In fact, I might give up. It’s shit, really.”
To show I’m serious I chuck out the last of my buds. They hit the road tumble into the forest.
Above us, thick, dark clouds began to form. The rolling hills, as green as hills get in Australia, rippled to the horizon. We were travelling through cheese country, and there were many cows.
Approximately 61 kilometres north of Eden is the town of Bega, famous for its cheese. I was excited, looking forward to purchasing a small piece of gruyere or even some brie.
“How much further is it to this town?” Asks Kosio.
“It’s coming up here, actually.”
The Mazda glided into town then abruptly stopped, for the town ran out after a few meters and it was back to cow pastures. Kosio reversed into a park.
“There are no windmills here. What are they talking about?” I say as I survey the dozen or so buildings on the street.
“What are you talking about?”
“Bega’s meant to be a cheese town. There was this add on telly that said, ‘you better buy Bega’. I was expecting giant wagon wheels of edam and cheddar lining the streets, and perky-breasted Dutch girls carrying buckets of freshly squeezed milk on their shoulders. I’m going to look for the cheese.” I jumped out and walked around the streets, I went from one end of the town to the other end of the town and then back again.
Just a bunch of crappy takeaway/ grocery shops and a pub. I chose a door that looked the least offensive and set off the tingling bell.
Ding-ding-ding, these bells never sounded like they are in tune, even to someone as tone-death as myself. I looked around the shop, walked up to the counter and confronted the surly looking fellow with a beer gut.
“Do you have any cheese here?”
“Yep, there’s some in the refrigerator.”
Refrigerators, I’ve heard the French would never keep their cheese in refrigerators. I was tired, irrational and, not stoned! I look at the man’s cheeses.
A couple of blocks of rectangular, plain old, plastic-wrapped cheddar! I was going to ask if the man had any more cheese, but I knew it would be futile.
Back at the counter, “I’ll just get a steak sandwich thanks.”
“No cheese?” He enquires.
“No, no cheese.” I confirm.
We drive away, the Mazda making funny rattling noises, which we ignore, Kosio puffing away on his fags, the tomato sauce of my sanga dripping on my hand.
Kosio takes a bite of his chicken burger and then his face screws up.
“That chicken’s practically raw.”
Not to myself: write to federal government requesting more Dutch cheese-makers for New South Wale’s south coast.
Chapter 11: Narooma
A tall, tree-lined road that looks like the cover of a travel brochure. All is quite, bar the sounds of nature, until…The blue Mazda zooms past with a whoosh!
The tall trees hardly even have time to remember the colour of the vehicle, but after some discussion they feel it was probably purple. The poor trees don’t really have much of a life there by the side of the highway and it is well known that they are colour blind.
“You know, this car flies. It’s like an aeroplane.” I say.
The lack of pot is getting to me. I now know how the early explorers felt when their water was running low. What am I talking about? I must have one little bit of bud left somewhere. I can just roll a little joint, it won’t hurt. Just a little bit, you know I’m not a pot junkie. I search the crevices of the car seat. I’m more than happy to travel around, fishing, sober and straight… it is just that car rides can get a little boring and it is occasionally better if you are stoned. The Buddha called this craving – you can’t become enlightened until you move beyond craving. I should focus on equanimity with the now rather than mask it in a haze of THC.
Kosio interrupts my search, “let’s crash somewhere around here, my eyes are stuffed.”
I assume he means sleep rather than plunging into the forest and kill ourselves in the car.
The sun is going down, we pull off the highway and go down some road and then realise we don’t know where the hell we are going, or even where we are.
Eventually we find a caravan park, on top of a hill, with a little bay, that would definitely have some fish in it we think.
I find a tiny spec of pot in amongst the dust of the floor and roll up the tiniest, smallest joint that one could ever roll up — it is practically non-existent. I’ll give up when we get to the blue mountains. I needed the Buddhists to tell me off, or a girlfriend.
The Buddhists were better at convincing me to quit my vices than the catholic priests had been. The Micks always let you off if you mumbled some Hail Marys or Our Fathers — getting away with things was easy.
“I stole a pen”, I’d say in confession.
The priest would do the sign of the cross, or some such thing, I can’t remember and then say, “That’ll be ten Hail Mary’s”.
“Oh, and I swore a few times and had some bad thoughts”.
“Add another two of the Lord Prayers”, the priest would add.
I remembered the Hail Mary’s but I didn’t know the words to the Lord’s Prayer, so like some pop song I’d say a few words, then kind of mumble the rest to the general tune.
The Buddhists told me that I should just cut the crap, I wasn’t fooling anyone, except myself, no matter how much I sucked up to the Virgin Mary or God.
I didn’t mind fooling the priests, but fooling me was a different matter. Even back then when I was in my early teens, I came to the conclusion that all the penance stuff was a bit pointless and I told the school I was interested in doing it anymore. To my surprise they were cool with it. I haven’t actually purposely stolen a pen off of an individual since then. I’ve got about two hundred from government agencies, but that was kind of my taxes that paid for that so they are free game. Someone did steal a green ‘clutch’ pencil that I had, it was the kind where you could add more leads by screwing off the back. It wasn’t one of those ones where you put in those hair like lead, you could put proper full size HB graphite into it. I’ve never forgotten that. Not wanting to put anyone else through that is enough to ward me off a life of crime.
We find a caravan park on a hill near a golf course overlooking a beach and the ocean. The sun is starting to set and Kosio rubs his eyes, strained from the day’s drive.
“You should really get a licence”, he says.
The trouble with travelling , is that there are all these in between bits where you can’t fish and you’re tempted to fill in your time by smoking pot. There’s probably great spots to fish everywhere, but if you stop at them all you never end up travelling very far.
I think I’m becoming obsessed by fishing now. It seemed such an uncool, daggy, yobbish, redneck thing to do when I was in the writing course. Drinking cafe lattes and beer and talking about writing were the cool things to do in the writing course.
As soon as the tent’s up, I’m down on the beach. This whole area, which is fancily titled Eurobodalla for some reason that I am not interested enough to find out about, is nice.
Kosio finds me down the beach a little later, he walks along kicking the sand as I struggle to throw out a hook and sinker in the bay. The waves and currents bring the whole rig in as quick as I can cast it out. So I have to reel and cast and reel and cast, pushing shit up hill basically.
“What’s up Kosio?”
“Me? Nothing, I’m just tired.”
I could see that something was on his mind. People’s eyes become different when they’re thinking about something. Even though it was quite dark now and my eyes weren’t the sharpest at that time of day, I could see that something was up, probably women — he was always on about women.
“I was just thinking actually, you know I really don’t understand Australian women. The European women just jump on you, but these Australian ones don’t seem to even show whether they are interested or not. How the hell do you know whether they like you or not, it’s like they are all looking off into space…they don’t express their feelings.”
I keep casting out, continuing Kosio’s lamentations in my own head, I had found the same thing, Australian women were too hard. I think we Australian weren’t schooled much in love. I was 18 when I got my first girlfriend, and frankly I had no idea what to do. We started having sex after going out together for a few months, and again, no idea. We both had the natural urges, but it isn’t enough. I heard in Uganda they have sex teachers, it’s usually your aunt, if you are a girl, or your uncle, if you are a boy, who give you all the good moves, the best way to go in, come out, et cetera. Some of that stuff is in magazines, but they cost ten bucks. The only real exposure I’d had to sex prior to having sex was from some dirty magazines my friend Stephen Badley had found at the Tugun dump. He was sprung by his mum with them so we ended up hiding them in the ceiling of my house during renovations. Luckily my dad never completed the renovations whilst I was a teenager, I think they might be shut up in the ceiling under the insulation now.
Even after losing my virginity I still wouldn’t say my skills improved greatly or my understanding of Australian women. Maybe it was familiarity with the Aussie girls, thinking I knew what they wanted, but really, like Koiso, having no idea.
I went further and further out into the waves, so I could try and get my rig into some deeper water where it might sit long enough for a fish to strike. First up to my knees, then up to my waist. It is now totally dark and the sky is filled with stars. I can see bugger all and get a few unexpected slaps in the face with walls of water. I cast quickly then retreat to relative safety of the shallows. This little rod isn’t designed for the ocean. But it’s fun getting wet, you always end up getting wet surf fishing.
The line manages to stay out long enough for me to grab a cigarette from Kosio. It tastes kind of wet and sandy.
“I’m starving. Let’s go and find some food, you’re not going to get anything here.” Since Kosio only usually ate one substantial meal a day, it was important to try and get some food in him so he wouldn’t die.
I reel in the line. I didn’t give up very easily. Or, as Kosio observed, I become obsessed very easily — a kind of gambler’s obsession, just one more throw, just one more throw.
“Maybe just one more throw.” I say. I wade out up to my waist and cast again, this time it lands in the deep, or so I think, I can hardly see at this stage.
Then line again drifts up the coast. I leave it in as long as I can, but when it gets to the shallows I reel it in again, it’s weighted down by something, probably seaweed, but no, as it comes nearer I see that I have in fact got a nice-sized blue swimmer crab tangled at the end of the line, and some seaweed. Somehow it managed to hook itself in the mouth.
“You like crab?”
“I prefer lobsters.” Replies Koiso.
“Well there’s no bloody lobsters around here the crabs got to do! Lobsters! I can imagine if you were there handing out loaves and fishes, that you’d be yelling, ‘I’d rather have lobsters and baguettes Jesus’, or maybe when he was apparating wine at the wedding, ‘actually, do you have any cognac’”.
Kosio has already got a little fire going and lying back on the sand he throws a few bits of dry driftwood on top. He had a wry smile, indicating that what I said was not far from the truth.The flames are fanned by the wind. I watch them in silence, almost sadness. It is one of those clear nights that clear the head of thought, only emotion remains.
“I might just see if I can get a few pipis as well.” I say, wanting to wet my feet again.
I walk along the waterline wriggling my toes in the sand, as water washes over my feet, feeling for the smooth shell of a pipi beneath the sand’s surface.
Sometimes you’d find a whole group of these little clams in one area, all huddled up next to each other.
With a fair swell coming in, I had to hold each pipi down with my foot to prevent them getting dragged back out to sea then bend down and grab them and put them in my pocket. I keep working my feet into the sand further and further along the beach — it’s one good way for writers and dreamers to gather food.
I get a dozen pipis in ten minutes, their shells clicking against each other in my pocket.
I take them back and chuck them onto the ember with the crab, after I plunge my knife into it’s head.
Beach cooking segment: when the pipis are open they are ready to eat, but you got to let them cool down for a couple of minutes, it’s best to do this on a few rocks to keep them out of the sand as much as possible, you’ll never get them completely sand free, and you just have to live with the uncomfortable grinding feeling of the grains in your mouth.
As for crabs on the beach, well the dirty magazines that Stephen found at the Tugun dump would probably have a joke that would cover off that situation, apart from that, they are ready when they go kind of pinky red, once you achieve that hue, let it cool a bit then, pull the legs parts, then get in there, suck, prod and poke, explore every crevice, and pick out every piece, just ignore the sand grinding away at your teeth. And for those hard to reach zones, these might only come if you get in there and nibble away with your teeth.
“Good bush tucker mate.” Says Kosio suck out a crab leg. The feast is not huge, but it is satisfying enough. And Kosio rolls a cigarette as the coffee peculator bubbles away in the fire.
I lay back and look at the stars and think that I can recognise Scorpio, it’s long tail curling across the galaxy. I try to find Sagittarius, it should be right besides it, but all I can see is a blob of interspersed stars, no half archer, half horse. Maybe it is something like those psychological ink-blob tests – I can kind of make out a Greek woman with no top on. Something flies into the atmosphere and disappears behind the ocean, maybe a meteor.
I used to be afraid of meteors after I found out that one had wiped out the dinosaurs. But one day in Nutfield, out on the Brock’s farm, one almost hit me in the head. It actually whizzed past my ear, with that unmistakeable meteor sound, and thudded into the ground next to me. It wasn’t a very big meteor. It was so small than even after looking around for half an hour I couldn’t find it. It was probably a bit of space ice, like the stuff Halley’s Comet is made of. I suppose it could have been dried duck shit or something, but I still like to think of it as extra-terrestrial material.
I should have just asked that woman where she was going, I contemplate as I look out into the universe, and whether she’d like a coffee sometime. The chances of finding her again were almost as astronomical as another close call with a meteor.
“Imagine if you were killed by a little meteor while you were sitting here.” I say.
“It would make a good photo, these four legs under this rock, sticking out all crushed and stuff.”
Another star falls from the sky. Perhaps that’s why I can never find Sagittarius, all its bits have fallen to earth.
The next day: that stupid device, the boiling water thing that doesn’t boil, is at it again! Who invents these things anyway? A bit of wire attached to the car’s lighter socket. I inspect the coil as it sits in my cup, the water has a few tiny little bubbles in it. I’ve never seen something as inefficient ever in my life.
I click the radio on. It doesn’t work either. I reach over to turn the car’s key one more notch. Suddenly the engine turns over and the car jolts forward and rests precariously against a tree which stands precariously on top of a hill that overlooks a precarious decline to the beach. I carefully lean back, making sure the hand brake is still on, and tune the radio to Triple J.
Kids with boogie boards chatter away as they walk down to the beach, and the smell of frying bacon wafts over to us. I turn around to see the profile of some breasts beneath a white T-shirt. I poke my head out of the open car door and look above the breasts and see the face of a European woman, watching the early sun.
And it’s is like a dream, the girl from the whale museum. She turns to the car.
“Hello,” she says, recognising me as well. “We meet again!”
“Yes.” I say, my heart thumping as though I have just survived a meteor shower. “It’s a nice day.”
“Yes, very beautiful”, she says drawing a breath that makes her chest expand. “Are you preparing some breakfast?”
“Oh, I’m just trying to boil some water for coffee, but this thing is broken and it won’t get hot enough.”
“We have some camp stove for cooking water, if you would you like to try it?”
“Sure”, I say, “we’ve got a peculator that could go on top”. I couldn’t believe it, I had found the girl again and she was asking me over for coffee. Me! I must have done something right in a past life. I get the coffee pot off the back seat, it has sand all over it. Sand is everywhere, looking at it brings back horrors of trying to eat sandwiches on the beach and having that grinding sensation in your mouth.
“We have our spot over here, my friend is still sleeping”.
“So is mine”. We had so much in common, this must be kismet.
I follow her over to her camp site, it’s not far from ours. She fiddles around in the gear in the back of their car, it’s a station wagon type that a lot of these foreign backpackers use and which is stuffed so full of tarpaulins, camping gear, tins of food and clothes that it looks like it might all burst through the windows if you leant on it too hard. Still, after tunnelling under the gear on all fours she manages to locate the camp cooker and kerosene straight away. These Swiss are very organised, I bet they have planned the packing of their car according to the priority in which they needed to access stuff and have a little map with a key which indicates where everything is.
“Are you on holidays?” asks the girl.
“Sort of, we’re really just travelling around for a bit. Kind of like Bohemians. My friend Kosio is a sculptor and photographer, and I am trying to write a book.” It was true Kosio was a skilled sculptor and photographer, he even had an old Hassleblad which he took landscape photos with. He the all-round artistic type who also made jewellery at some stage for a posh jewellery shop on Melbourne’s Collins Street. Me, I was trying to write, but it was no point just sitting around writing, it was better to get out and do stuff to write about. I was taking mental notes as I went and I had my little ideas book where I occasionally jotted down a thought. In it I had invented the character Agent Juanito who was to be in a book called the Little Book of Mass Destruction. It was maybe going to be something involving an Alien and this girl Agatha from Barcelona whom I met in Dublin a few years ago.
“So you don’t really have a job then”, she says.
“Not at the moment, I’ve just finished a year of a professional writing and editing course in Melbourne, so I’m having a break until I get into things again, I’m not sure what I want to do next. I don’t really want to finish the course at the moment.”
She rolls her eyes a little with what I think is scepticism, but it turns out it is more likely a ‘I know what you’re talking about’ type of eye rolls than a ‘yeah, I think you’re looking like you are turning out to be a loser’ eye roll.
“I too have finished my studies”. She says with a sigh. “And I am having a break from thinking about what to do next” she adds defiantly.
I should have corrected her and said that I hadn’t ‘finished’ my studies, and I had dropped out halfway through the course. But that would make me sound like a dropout, where I was more like Jesus during his time in the dessert, just wandering about for a bit to clear my head, then come out all refreshed. Except he didn’t do any fishing during this time as far as I am aware.
“What were you studying?”
“Architecture. I am not certain if I want to continue with it.”
“Really. My former bosses had this cool house made from mud brick, it was round and had a pond coming into the living room, and a tropical glasshouse walkway”.
“Oh, I like such things.” Her eyes lit up.
“Well, I’ve got a picture of it somewhere, I could show you later if you like. What is your name?”
“Do you want some coffee?”
“No.” She says mater of factly. She looks out into the ocean. She takes out a bar of chocolate. “Chocolate?”
“Is this your breakfast?” I ask. I take a bit.
Corinne has a childlike quality to her face, she is not overtly attractive, neither was I for that matter, and kind of Tom-boyish in the way she dressed, a T-shirt that hung on her bosom, but displayed no cleavage, shorts and sandals. There was no sign of a tan, she had lily-white skin that looked soft and well cared for. I want to give her a kiss on the cheek.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
I had been told that I was a Swiss goat herder in his previous life by some whacky lady on the Brock’s farm. I don’t mention this, too soon in the relationship.
“Do you want some coffee?” I ask.
I wish I had something witty to say. Something Cary Grant would say.
“Do you like the ocean?” I ask.
“Of course.” She looks at me and furls her eyebrows as though I was asking whether she like kittens. “Do you think there are people who do not like the ocean?”
“I don’t know”. We both pondered this for a moment, it was a scary proposition, there might be some psychopaths out there who hated the ocean – probably the same sort of people who didn’t like kittens. I mean it was fine to hate sand, or the smell of tinned cat food in the kitten’s case, but we all used to live in the ocean before we crawled out on land.
I pour some into a cup which Corinne has provided.
“Who would not like the ocean”, she adds, the thought obviously continuing to disturb her.
I ask her where she has been and where she is going to. She has been studying English in Melbourne for about a month before she started travelling with her friend. She was only in Australia for a few more weeks.
She’s very chatty and, with me throwing in a few questions, we quickly move on to an abridged history of her life. We sit talking providing each other with some highlights of our lives. She has been to Egypt, and Brazil, where her boyfriend had gotten malaria and they had lived off of cheese sandwiches. She was almost shot by soldiers in Columbia when they were stop a bus she was on to search it and she ran away to the bushes to go to the toilet.
She produces a bit of fruit and nuts as well as some orange juice she has had in the esky overnight, it’s like an impromptu picnic. And I feel a million miles away from the city, being in a hurry, thinking you should be somewhere else.
I tell her about my work on the Brocks farm, my time in Ireland, staying at a meditation centre in France, the time I almost got hit by a meteor and how we are going to head to the Blue Mountains in a few days to do a 10-day meditation course. She notices I am wearing a ring on my finger on my right hand and asks if I am married. I confirm I am unattached, I start to miss Kathy when I think about this. She confirms that her boyfriend is still back in Switzerland, and I quickly resign myself to just being friends.
A zipper opens the doorway to a nearby orange tent and Corinne’s friend’s head sticks out bleary eyed and squinting from the sun which is now shining directly into her face.
“Good morning”, she says to Corinne and I.
“Morning.” I say.
Corinne’s friend pulls out an alarm clock, “9.45! I think I get up now. I was hoping to have ” She stares out into the ocean, “Oh what beautiful picture to wake up to.” She opens the flaps of the tent wide open. She is still in her sleeping gear, a loose t-shirt with no bra and a pair of loose cotton shorts. She joins us for a coffee and is impressed by the peculator and the fact that I had Lavazza brand coffee. Her name is Judith.
The girls are going to to be in Sydney for a few days and then they will also be in the Blue Mountains staying at some relatives of Judith’s. They will be heading further north after that, with no specific destination, though they are thinking maybe Cairns.
I notice Kosio stretching in front of our tent. When he was in the Bulgarian army he used to have to get up at 4.30 in the morning and run around in his underwear in the snow. He looked up a mental illness that could get you discharged and faked symptoms so he could get out of it. I had gotten a medical certificate one time to get out of having to look for work, but I really wasn’t in the same league as Kosio. Judith says to bring him over. Judith is also Swiss, and she thinks that breakfast is the best meal of the day. Kosio only gets into coffee and cigarettes before midday but he accepts a cup of juice, which, Judith points out, they need to use up before they hit the road around lunch. Still they seemed to hit it off straight away. Great, I thought, he’s going to end up with this Judith woman after I’ve had my hopes dashed with Corinne.
“Why is the car near the edge of the cliff”, ask Kosio.
“I tried turning it on so I could have a coffee, then it kind of jolted forward a bit.” I didn’t know much about manual cars, the first time I’d tried one I got the accelerator and the clutch mixed up on the little Suzuki hatch of my friend Christophe. It made this horrendous growl kind of a mixture between a moose and a thunderstorm, then it bellowed out black smoke and I was banned from ever trying to start the thing again. I could drive tractors, though I’d almost accidentally driven over Peter in it one time. “Maybe you should move it before it goes of the edge.” I suggest.
“Nah”, it’ll be all right”, says Kosio, “I’ll do it after I have my coffee.” He had that Bogart, or Cary Grant, type ‘who gives a crap’ quality that women go for despite their protests that they like the new age types who do dishes, cry and that type of shit. I was more like Woody Allen in Sleeper where I was more likely to dress up as a robot and get high from rubbing the orb, than display any particularly manly qualities.
“I might go down and have a dip”. I say, “Do you want to come?” I ask Corinne, primarily, but also giving a general sweep of my head indicating the invitation went out to all that were present. I had a butterfly in my throat, my heart pounding a little, obviously my old heart murmur playing up again, or a suppressed feeling that I didn’t want to be rejected by Corinne.
“I might come down later” Kosio says, almost imperceptibly pointing his head in the direction of Judith.
“I will first finish breakfast”. Says Judith.
I look over to Corinne quizzically. “That just leaves us.” I say to her and hold her in my gaze momentarily and something goes through my veins, like the first time I smoked pot.
The first time I smoked pot.
Christophe and I had arranged to score some pot off a woman we were doing a teaching course with at Griffith University on the Gold Coast – there were at least three heavy pot smokers in the course who are probably now out there teaching your children. She had met us outside the KFC near Miami High School – it was kind of appropriate as they had this big sign on the hill beside the school which read “Hi, Miami High” – and given us over this resiny green bud wrapped up in alfoil – they use to call them ‘foils’ in those days. It cost us $25 and was a bit on the stingy side we thought, but it was our first deal and we were just glad we had gotten some gear.
We’d gone to my place in Palm Beach and rolled a little spliff and shared it with my mate from my old Catholic School, Marymount, Craig Herbert. His dad went to Alcoholic Anonymous with my dad and we were both a bit anti-grog, so looked to a natural alternative to get our highs. We were all just 18, it was an exiting little coming-of-age ceremony, like the first time we’d gone to a Surfers Paradise nightclub. We sat in a small circle and smoked the spliff, it had a wonderful marshmallow texture, thick sweet, smoke that you could almost chew. We waited a few minutes in quite expectation, wanting the giggling and the far-out psychedelia to kick in, like on the Cheech & Chong movies, but nothing happened. I had to split as I’d promised to go to this play at the university with my first girlfriend, so I said goodbye to Craig and Chris, and with disappointed I jumped on my bike and road over to her house, which was on the other side of the canal.
I treadled along and got about halfway around the canal, when it hit me. An boy did it hit me, I felt like that boy in E.T. When he rides up into the air. My head turned to marshmallow, and I left this world and arrived in some another world, which happened to be my girlfriend’s house, I knocked on the door and her mother answered and she was all like, waa, waa, waa, waa, waa, waa. I couldn’t understand her, she was talking like those characters on the Snoopy show. Next thing I know I was at this play and they were also going waa, waa, waa and waa, waa, waa as I stared some distance behind the actor’s heads.
That was the first time I ever smoked pot. It was about a hundred times better than when I first had sex – not necessarily the fault of either of us (there were only two present for the records). As I got older the sex got better, but the Extra Terrestrial first pot high, was the only time I could honestly say that it knocked my tits off – every other time, though not always bad, it was just something that made me vaguely sleepy, occasionally giggly, often chatty, but never tracked down the little marshmallow dragon, despite chasing her many a lounge room lair down the eastern seaboard of Australia.
Bask in Narooma, a euphoria was running through my veins similar to the moment, I looked into Corinne’s eyes and she said, “That would be nice, but first I need to get changed.” She slipped into the tent to put on her bather bottoms, it wasn’t until she got to the beach that she put her top on.
“It was too cramped to this in the little tent to do this”, she said on the sand, as she covered her breasts with her white shirt and slipped her bikini top on. It was purple, my favourite colour, and she asked whether I would help tie it at the back for her. She looked a lot less tom boyish now that I could see her generous cleavage. Still she didn’t do anything stupid like scream when she hit the cold water, or put her arms in the air, she was quietly confident, diving beneath the waves, and attempting to body surf with a few instructions from myself.
“You have to get onto the wave just as it breaks”, I say.
“It gets broken?” She asks innocently.
“Just before it gets the white frothy stuff on top”.
“Ah, so”. She says, and she even manages to catch a wave for a couple of metres.
When we get out of the water she asks whether I can help apply more sunscreen.
“The Australian sun is so harsh on my skin”, she says, “I am used to the soft sun in our willage (pronoucing the ‘v’ as ‘w’ as they, and the vampires, do)”, and I do so, massaging it into her shoulders. Her skin is in beautiful condition, she must use some sort of cream, I think, and her hair is a dark black and smooth, I’m guessing she has some conditioner with Swiss herbs in it.
We chat for a while, she talks about architecture and how they need so thick windows because it is so cold. I talk about gardening, giving her a crash course in Permaculture.
“It’s like working with nature”, I say, “in a jungles, vines grow over trees, each plant has its little niche, so, instead of putting everything in rows, you mix things up, I really just chuck stuff about and hope for the best. Beans, zucchini, tomatoes, whatever grows grows.”
“Ah so, beans,” says Corinne with a sigh, “my boyfriend called my kleine bohne – that is ‘little bean’”.
After that we sit in silence for a few moments, I pick up a handful of dry sand and lit it slip through my fingers, Corinne looks to the sunset.
“In Switzerland,” she says, “they would never mix up their vegetables. They are always in very neat rows with some label at the end with the name of the vegetable. Life is always neat in Switzerland – not so much complications as here. I do like this idea of being nature and the wild. My neighbours in Switzerland put this little pieces in their garden to kill the snails and slugs. But it can kill the hedgehogs, so I come out at night with a torch and pick up all the little pieces so the hedgehogs will be safe.”
I think of the cute little hedgehogs that Corinne has saved.
“Do you think having no plan for your life is good?” Asks Corinne.
“Well”, I start realising that Corinne probably sees me as some sort of drifting bum with no idea of what I wanted to do with my future, “I’m not sure, I guess it’s worth just playing it by ear sometimes”.
“You playing by ear? What does this mean?”
I had to think for a moment as I’d used the phrase enough bad hadn’t stopped to think of it’s origins, “I guess rather than reading the music, you just use your intuition. They also say ‘going with the flow’”
“Like a river flowss”.
She nodded, “okay”.
“Though speaking of plans, I think we might need to go soon. We have to get into the Blue Mountains tomorrow afternoon to start this meditation course, maybe if you are still around after that finishes, then we could all catch up for some hot chocolate or something.” I say, Audrey Hepburn said something in this movie Charade about what people people should do when they meet in far off lands.”
“What is it they should do?”
“I don’t know, I can’t remember”.
“How long will this meditation be?”
“Ay yi yay, so long”.
“Well, the Buddha spent some years meditating, I think ten days is not so long”.
“Judith does not have much time in Australia, and she wants to go to the Great Barrier Reef”.
I shrug, it was too bad, she was a nice girl, but sometimes things didn’t work out. Some people’s destiny was to go to the reef, others to sit in dark halls searching their souls.
Kosio and Judith come down.
“Hey”, says Kosio, as happy as I’ve ever seen him in his life, “Judith was saying she might be interested in doing this meditation course.”
“Do you think it might be possible?” Judith asks me.
“I thought you wanted to go to the Barrier Reef”, says Corinne.
“Ya, there might also be time for this I think. Perhaps we should just swim where the stream takes us.”
It seemed that Kosio and I were spreading some sort of dogma that could lead to the disintegration of orderly Swiss society. I explain that they would need to contact the centre and see if there are any spots available and that it was a pretty tough course where you sit from around 4 o’clock in the morning till 9.30 at night.
Judith had done yoga retreats in India so she was still fine with it. Corinne could not understand how something could be both pretty and tough, and I explained how we use pretty in Australia to describe a pretty woman and also someone who is pretty ugly, to help her with her understanding.
We set about organising another two spots for the meditation course. Corinne is not convinced that the whole thing is some sort cult like the one the Princess of Monaco was in that would have her ending up in some ‘accident’. I assure her that I had done several courses and that they had never asked me for my bank details and that I hadn’t been in a car that had the brakes tampered with or anything. The course coordinators are also reluctant as they tell me they were meant to have put in the forms for the course a few days ago, but they agree the girls come come once the meditation teacher has spoken to each of them over the phone. Corinne still really doesn’t think it’s a great idea but Judith convinces her to give it a go following some lengthy conversations in Swiss German, and a few hours after thinking that I may not see this girl ever again, we have confirmed that we will all be sitting in silence together, though segregated according to sex, in the mountains, in silence, for over a week, and, I reluctantly add to Corinne, without much prospect of chocolate.
And so it came to pass that the girls promised to meet us at the centre the next evening to begin the course.
After lunch with them, Kosio and I depart.
“I think we have time for some more fishing before we get holy”, I say.
“I think so”, says Kosio.
And we wave goodbye to the girls and head off along the road.
Chapter 11: Shell Harbour
There was a popular book that was around about the time I started writing about our adventures. I was called the Shipping News, by Annie Prouxl, and each chapter started off with a description of a different.
If I were Annie Proulx attempting to write The Shipping News, I’d only be able to write the one chapter and it would begin:
The only knot I know.
The only knot I know is a simple knot, tight as a noose.
You hold your hook in front your face, barb facing away from you. You poke the line through the eye and pull about 3 inches of line through. Then you loop the line over and poke it through the eye again. Pull some line through, wrap it 5 to 7 times back around the mainline, then poke it through the doubled loop that has formed, spit on it, and pull it tight like a noose. Cut off excess line.
I don’t know what sort of knot you call it and have been too apathetic to worry about ever asking after its name.
We arrive in Shell Harbour in the late afternoon. A long, tiring, drive. Had lunch in a place called Ulladulla and a swim in Bateman’s Bay. Thought I saw the Swiss girl’s Holden around Nowra, but the day had wearied me and — too much on my mind.
“I like these European women,” says Kosio, “over there they grab you and drag you off. I don’t understand the women here…”
“It’s just Australia I keep telling you, we play our cards close to our chests.”
From the carpark, beneath some Norfolk Island Pines, we can see a rocky outcrop stretching into the harbour.
Rock fishing, the sport of kings clad in thongs. Quite a few people die each year rock fishing. Like most funs things, it is dangerous.
“I’m out there.” I say.
Kosio watches the waves which occasionally break well onto the rocks. He hates the ocean, well at least the bits of it that could wash him off the rocks. “I don’t know, there’s big waves.”
“You just got to keep your eye on the swell, I’ll tell you when to run. Remember, if I drop my fishing rod and run it means run really fast there’s a big fucking wave coming.”
I get out the rods and run down. All these little rock pools, one of which contains a golf ball, and another a tennis ball. Neither are quite as fascinating as say an octopus, but then we’re getting closer to the biggest, loudest city in Australia, so you can’t expect paradise.
Summer afternoons with their cool sea breezes and signs of evening rain.
Out at the tip of the outcrop stands an old man, sturdy short legs, grey hair and not a care in the world beside his bright green and slightly translucent seaweed, tied carefully on a small hook and suspended beneath a cork float.
It bobs up and down and is occasionally pulled under by what I presume are fish.
He has an old-fashioned creel made of bamboo, an his rod has the look of the hand-made era. They’re all old as the hills. And hills are quite old in Australia — they used to be called mountains before the wind got to them.
The old man cast into the swell which raises a good metre at a time. He casts then steps back, his thongs flip flopping spraying water between his toes.
He is after black bream — black bream like a bit of weed, and I can fully sympathise with them, it looks delicious.
Black bream are somewhat of a delicacy and delicious even with the minimum of cooking effort. Just a bit of salt, lemon, and tarragon.
I cast in and get snagged. I pull and pull and it just won’t come out, like a very small kangaroo getting caught in a thick stand of blackberries. Time for a different strategy.
The old man tells me that they get leather-jackets around here.
Leather-jackets are a funny looking fish, I think that they are a member of the trigger-fish family.
In literature magical realism is dead, but in the ocean it lives on as strong as ever. No one — not even those with the wildest of new-age imaginations — could think up of a fish like the leather-jacket.
They come in a variety of flavours and colours and generally look extremely poisonous. Primarily you can identify these fish by their short tail, tough, leathery skin, and unicorn-like spike that sits above their large puppy-like eyes.
They wag their very short tails back and forth for propulsion. They also have these stumpy finny things on their sides, that they also wag around and they are as cute as buttons.
They come in green, muddy yellows, off-browns and an assortment of other dangerous looking colours like red and blue — Joan Miro, the surrealist of Catalonia who painted in very bright colours, friend of Picasso’s, would have loved them I’m sure.
I catch a bright yellow one, just in time for the darkness. I throw it into a plastic bag, avoiding its poisonous unicorn spike, which can hurt.
“You can’t eat that thing?” States Kosio as we clamber off the rocks with the fish in the bag.
“They are absolutely delicious. And such a wonderful colour” I hold it up carefully, its tail pulses, a nervous twitch.
Where its life goes I do not know, but gone it is, and it lays limp like the death of a tragic clown.
Kosio manages to catch a little black bream and earmarked it for his consumption, not trusting the edibility of my funny, but tragic looking fish.
“I don’t trust your strange looking fish, I’m not touching it.”
“What would you know? I’m the bloody fishing expert, I’ve been catching fish since I was old enough to walk.”
“I wouldn’t eat it if I was you.”
Pause. Kosio thinks I’m full of shit, I can see it! I can see it in his eyes.
“Do you get these fish in the Black Sea?” I ask.
“Well, there you go. You don’t know what you are talking about. These are one of the most delicious, sweet and delicate fish you’ll ever wrap your chops around.”
“But that doesn’t mean it isn’t poisonous.”
I walk off, no respect. No fucking respect. I’ll show him, I’ll write a bloody book about fish.
Maybe I should just have a little bit of pot, see me through to the meditation centre.
Stoned or meditating I don’t care. Don’t care about nothing.
Before I know it, my hands have worked their magic again, and I’m smoking and going off to la-la land.
Gee wizz the sky’s awful pretty…
Are those birds I hear?…
A school of brightly coloured leather jackets fly through the air, landing in a tree of chocolate.
Corinne sits below the tree eating fallen chocolate leaves.
I run along with a butterfly net and catch a fish and hand it to her.
She starts licking it, like a lollypop and I feel very manly and proud.
Kosio releases a huge cloud of fragrant herb as he opens the door to the Mazda somewhere up the road. I wake up, I’m hungry.
And fuck it, I don’t know what the hell’s going on. Chocolate trees, lollypop fish! Women! They do strange things to your mind and groin.
I know it probably won’t work out. That she probably won’t even go to Nelsons Bay. But then again I’m sick of tedious, everyday reality. Be done with it!
I look into my fishes eyes, its big puppy-dog eyes,
“Alas poor yellow jacket. I knew him Kosio. (pause) he was a fish of jest…”
Philosophically speaking, we probably just dream everything anyway.
I grab a pen the Mazda splutters to a start.
In an infinite universe, everything is possible, I write on the back of a soiled napkin, but most things are unlikely.
We skim through the rest of Shell Harbour like a cheap novel. It reminds me of one of those amusing postcards that is completely black with only a little crescent moon in the top right-hand corner and a little caption saying, “London (or anywhere else for that matter) at night”.
Well there’s a little more than that I guess, give credit where credit is due. There are some houses, a highway, trucks hurling back and forth, but it might as well be totally black.
“I got to get something to eat, I feel like shit!” I say as the lights and the traffic pound into my head.
“But we have the fish.”
“I can’t be bothered cooking tonight man. I just feel fucked and confused…”
Kosio could have probably cooked but he was more the hunter-gatherer type. He’d happily pick stuff up and bring it back to his wife, he was very good at that. But as for preparing anything that didn’t come out of a tin, he wasn’t quite up there with the best of them.
We drive into some service station, cars zooming towards Sydney to our right, I kind of fall out of the door and onto my feet, which sway beneath me. It’s been a long day, perhaps I’m swaying and my feet are standing still. I look up and yes, it is me and not my feet.
Bumming around takes it out of you.
I buy something from their food section. It could only be described as an out-of-date dried up source of protein. I imagine that it may have come from an animal at some stage, or at least an animal’s intestines. I take one bite, almost vomit, chuck the shit in the bin, then go back for a choc-topped ice-cream.
And we get in the car and go beyond a bridge and straight to the right were we come to another caravan park and we turn the lights off and roll the car past the office without paying.
We were both socialists, so it was okay. You know, distribute the wealth, distribute the tent spaces.
Later that night.
We sit on a short wharf beneath a bridge with people in cars on top trying to get somewhere, nowhere, where ever. There is a halo made of cloud and moonbeam around the concrete giant, turning it into something kind of pretty.
And we sit with the gas burner, drinking cup after cup of coffee with sugar and salty cigarettes.
We catch nothing, don’t really need anything besides an excuse to sit out in the open. Kosio gets a big one that gets away, but since it gets away it is hardly even worth mentioning. Though we mention it for hours anyway and we conclude that it was a huge Tailor of around 10 pounds we’d think, perhaps larger, maybe even a shark, you never know, it was pretty bloody big though.
Small boats shine lights into the weed beds that spread across the river. They’re trying to catch prawns or squid…
I’m too tired to focus and can barely remember getting into this tent.
The next morning.
A man carrying a very large flathead, it stretches from his shoulder to almost the ground, walks past.
I hold up my little clown fish. It didn’t seem quite as small before the flathead walked past with the man.
I try plunging my knife into the fish’s skin.
Oops, nearly catch my knuckle.
I try again.
Oops, Just miss my nail as the knife slides off the slimy skin.
I chuck the fish to the ground and try stemming the blood flow from my finger.
“You little cunt bastard fish!” I yell.
A few moments later, my hands press the gash firmly, Kosio pops his head from the tent’s fly and rubs his eyes.
“Are you cooking your fish?”
“No, I’m cutting my fucking fingers off.”
He pauses for a moment surveying the scenery, the flowing river, the early morning sunshine.
“You could send them to that Swiss girl.”
“Van Gough sent his ear to his favourite prostitute. You could save your finger for that girl.”
I wait patiently for the blood to stop, Kosio fills up the espresso machine and rolls his first cigarette with one of those silver cigarette rolling machines. I get him to roll me one and I stuff it in my mouth. Early morning and cigarettes a perfect marriage.
“I knew a guy who once lost his toes in the mountains around Sofia, and another guy who lost his nose once in Moscow. They get frozen.”
I knew I wasn’t going to get any sympathy for my half cut fingers, so I finish my cigarette and then just throw the leatherjacket, skin and all, in a pan with my spare hand and some butter and salt.
Once cooked the skin just peels off as easy as a banana skin, the fish has the laugh last I guess. Ha, ha. But hey, I’m alive and you’re dead and I chew away on its flesh and Kosio watches me intensely waiting for me to keel over from the poison.
He throws his little black bream on.
Chapter twelve: getting high on your own supply.
North of Shell Harbour, hurtling towards Blackheath, and the Blue Mountain Vipassana meditation centre…
Imagine a whole bunch of grey smokestacks pumping stuff into the air, with flames spurting out and big trucks doing there stuff and no-nonsense people walking around with football jerseys saying The Illawarra Steelers, a rugby league team based somewhere in the haze and activity. That, in a nutshell is Wollongong.
The Mazda was quite at home here. It’s kind of the car’s equivalent to the human’s primordial boil. Many a Holden and a Ford would have been conceived here, along with a few, some would say, unlucky individuals named Wayne and Kevin, or Lisa or Jo.
I don’t know, I could see a kind of hellish charm to the place. A charm probably best viewed through rolled-up car windows and probably best left alone for periods in excess of say half an hour, but a charm none the less.
The Mazda speeds through to the other side of Industryville and heads towards the gum capped peaks of the Blue Mountains.
Traversing the outskirts of Sydney, that seems to extend for hundreds of kilometres, we come to the swaying eucalyptus, fanning the driest of air, circulating the heat that’s try to cook us alive.
A road sign says Katoomba, we’re getting there.
The sound of a siren, a fire truck, something’s burning, besides my head.
“Last supper mate, better grab some meat and junk food. These Buddhists don’t believe in that stuff.” I manage to speak, but I have to do so slowly and with a raspy voice. “I’m going to get me a steak sandwich.”
“I never understood these people. In Bulgaria the monks smoke and drink, everyone smokes and drinks, why don’t they like smoking and drinking?”
“What?” I continue very slowly as I open the door and head towards a cold soft drink display, that I can see inside the shop’s window. I’m like sad puppet, my arms hanging at my sides. Cold drink vending machine. Cold drink. Must drink, cold drink.
I can’t continue the smoking monk discussion, I have to think of my survival, I have to drink a Solo or even a Coke.
And before I know it, I’m at the counter guzzling down sugary water, handing over handfuls of coins. Take as much as you want, rip me off, I don’t give a flying fuck.
Kosio enters, with his broad-brimmed hat and hairy knees.
I lower my drink with sigh of relief, the cold fluid hits my brain and my head twitches.
We sit and watch the road shimmer. The air is almost on fire. Not even a mad dog or an Englishman would spend too much time out there.
The ocean, with any chance of relief, is too far away.
Jaipur, India, December 1995
Rushing around not knowing if I’m Indira or Mahatma. Millions of people, and they don’t stop. They don’t stop selling or trying to clean your damn shoes. Why the hell do you need your shoes shined so often? And why are all these people just pissing on the streets? I didn’t think these people were allowed to show their old fellas in public…and get away dog! You damn rabies ridden fleabag!
Stressing out, flipping out, like a fish that’s been slapped around the head once to often and I decide to head towards the Vipassana meditation centre, on the hill, and try getting myself in a course starting this evening. I hop into a bloody rickshaw and head up into the hills near the city, prickly thorn bushes, goats and other things line the roads.
I come to the centre, I pay the man, after haggling a bit over extras for drives into the hills or something, and I walk into the centre, full steam ahead.
I immediately feel a wave of calm come over me. I just stand there and watch my breath for a moment. My mental anguish, the Indian traffic, all stress, gone for a few moments.
Basically I am in the right place.
I go up to a fat Indian man with a gruff looking face, to register for the 10-days. I come to the section where it says visa number and I say in a mystic metaphysical haze — and I’m not even exaggerating, nor am I stoned, I’m just on a cloud a few steps down from Nirvana, whatever the hell that means.
“Actually I don’t have a visa.” I smile, not wanting to be anywhere else in the world right now.
The fat man’s gruff face turns an odd shade of red. A young male, European assistant comes running over, as though a water pipe is about to burst.
“What?!” Asks the fat man, with a lip tremor reminiscent of Jabba the Hut. “Why you people come to these centres without visas?! You think this meditation is a joke, that our country’s rules are a joke?!”
The European arrives just in time.
“Hi I’m Jan.”
“He can’t stay here without a visa!”
Jan turns to Jabba, “it’s okay, I’ll tell him.” He turns to me with a quizzical look.
“I guess I should get a visa.” I say.
With a very compassionate and composed voice Jan advises me to go to New Dehli and get one.
“There pretty strict on all that sort of thing here, you know.”
I turn to Jabba without any anger what so ever, “sorry.”
He shakes his head. Jan shrugs his shoulders and smiles. I walk out of the centre recharged, saying hi to the silent gardener pruning some sort of jungle garden, then get on several buses to Dehli, half asleep, half blissed out.
India’s a good place for that sort of thing.
I wake somewhere on a road in the middle of the night, or early morning, god knows when, the bus is hurtling backwards at a brisk and alarming rate as I rest my head against a broken window and sleep to ignore it.
But that’s another story…
Back in Australia, I realise that things are always changing. You don’t always get bliss, you don’t always get disappointed, but you always get something.
Kosio and I sit on the bonnet of the car outside the entrance to the meditation centre and smoke our cigarettes.
And then Evan turns up.
“Hi,” says Evan. He has pale Greek skin and dark oily hair, and long pants, a vest and a beatnik beard.
“Aren’t you hot in all that?” I ask, “I’m dying here and you’re walking around in that.”
The heat was showing no sign of abating.
Evan was a fellow student of the art of writing. He’d caught me the morning after my last class and asked if I’d wanted to go spend some time in a shack somewhere in the Victorian Alps. I told him I was going off meditating and he said that that sounded like a great idea. He was there he said, stuff the shack in the Alps, he wanted to go straight to god.
I said the Buddhists didn’t really believe in God as such and that the course was rigorous, and long, and physically and mentally one of the toughest thing he’d ever do.
He said, “whatever”, so I booked him in to teach him a lesson.
“The pub’s air conditioned anyway,” says Evan.
“You’ve been at the pub?”
“Yeah, I was on the train all night and then I had to jump on this Blue Mountains train straight away and by the time I got here I realised that I had a few hours to kill, enough time for a few pots.”
Kosio lights another cigarette, trying to tank himself up with 10-days worth of nicotine. Evan, who would have probably made a good vampire I think, swayed slightly with the breeze.
“Just don’t tell them you’re with me, I’m meant to be taking this seriously.” I pause for a moment realising that this whole thing is serious. For ten days we silently look at ourselves and our decaying bodies.
“Actually it is serious.” I continue, “You should have come better prepared. Not straight from the bloody pub.” I was starting to stress out, thinking the administration would kick us bums out. Evan could see he’d betrayed me. But he didn’t care, he just explained quietly and carefully.
“Well it was hot outside. So I went in, where it was cool, and had a beer. I’ll be sober in the morning. It doesn’t really start till tomorrow anyway. Relax.”
I wasn’t satisfied and I turned to Kosio pissed off that these guys were seemingly disregarding what I had found to be one of the most enlightening experiences I had ever undertaken.
“And you better not sneak out for a fag every five minutes, we’re here to meditate, if you don’t like that, wait for me in Sydney.”
Kosio was a bad as Evan. He’d wrangled his way out of the army in Bulgaria by pretending to be a lunatic. He probably thinks he can pull the hood over the monk’s eyes.
“Ah! What do I care anyway!” I walk into the centre in an unexplainable emotional huff. I have these little emotional things sometimes. I don’t know where they come from, and they seem to escape at the oddest of moments.
Feelings, nothing more than feelings, and I try to hold back the tears, realising then that I’m a tight-faced emotionally retarded person.
But deep down I do want to feel something. Just like I did when I saw Corinne under the chocolate tree.
Oh, better not think of things like that on a day like this. It might very well melt.
3.30 p.m. thirty odd people loiter around on the wooden decking that spreads from the centre’s dinning hall. They’ve just begun to realise what they’re getting themselves into — this is not an easy course. And it is rarely described as fun by people who have undertaken it.
It is more like hard work, and a relief when finished. But I keep coming back for more — I have to come back for more. I’d be totally fucked up if I didn’t…
Evan and Kosio aren’t talking to me, and they aren’t going to be for 10-days.
We were all going to have to take a good, long, hard look at ourselves, just as the principal at school had told me when we I’d accidentally punch that kid in the temple.
I still don’t reckon you’d actually die from a blow to the temple…
Chapter 13: A day in the life of a monk.
Pali is the language in which the Buddha taught, and in which his teachings have been preserved…
9 p.m.: No fish, meditation hall, Blue Mountains.
We file into the hall in silence. It is almost dark.
The “old” students sit towards the front, the new towards the back.
The women sit on the left, the men on the right.
Each with their own cushion, a square about 80 centimetres each side.
Once all is settled, the teachers come into the room. They are a couple. A funny looking man with a prominent bald spot and a funny looking woman with a pretty bad haircut. They play an audio tape, a raspy Indian voice comes on an explains why we are all here.
The “real” world starts to disappear, first with a whisper, then with a shout.
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
This is triple gem (put on an Indian accent when reading this). It means taking refuge in the Buddha, or all who have lost their attachment to their ego (not me by the way); and the Dhamma, or the nature of life and existence (whatever that is); and finally the Sangha, or the community of meditators, monks and nuns – even part time ones like ourselves.
After reciting triple gem (continue with the Indian accent and don’t worry about the “the’s” being missing), we take our vows, which we undertake to observe scrupulously for ten days. They are called five precepts and they are:
Not to kill any living being.
Not to steal.
To abstain from sexual activity.
To abstain from false speech.
To abstain from intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.
The “old” students, ie me and a few others who have participated in at least one of these ten-day courses, and decided to come back for more punishment, take two more precepts:
To abstain from taking foods after 12 midday.
To abstain from sleeping in very high, luxurious beds – including water beds and coin-operated vibrating beds I presume.
We also vow to do all these other things including submitting to this technique for the duration of the course and not to practice other techniques whilst at this centre and also to submit to the guidance of the assistant teachers. There’s probably some other things, I forget.
After all the formalities are over, we start to examine our breath, with the aid of the raspy audio Indian. A technique called annapana sati, or awareness of breath.
Watch the breath come in, watch it go out. Continuously, without missing even the subtlest of breaths – so the theory goes.
We start, eyes closed, trying to be aware of the breath, in silence, in the dim light as the bugs start waking up for the evening.
Breath comes in, breath goes out, you just watch it, you don’t do anything about it, and you don’t try to change it.
If it is fast, it is fast. If it is slow, it is slow. If it is shallow, it is shallow. Deep, deep.
Our job is just observe.
Sit for a while and practice.
10.15 p.m. and then it’s off to bed.
4 a.m. The day’s first gong, a resonating, low-pitched sound that hangs in the air after each strike with the wooden hammer.
I roll over contemplating rising, but leave that thought as I pull the sheet closer to my ear.
4.30 a.m. Second gong, this time it’s real, that’s the gong that’s meant to get you out of bed and off meditating. I just lie their, eyes closed, watching my breath go in and out for a few moments.
Breath going in, breath going out.
5.30 a.m. wake up, realise I went to sleep meditating earlier, sit up in bed, and do some serious meditation — eyes closed, with this technique you always have your eyes closed, part from when you’re walking around and having your showers and all that business.
My body tenses, thoughts rush through my head. Sex, drugs, arguments with people I haven’t seen for years, embarrassing situations that I’d prefer to forget… Everything, in every fucking detail.
When you sit and begin to watch your breath and focus on your breath and the moment of that breath, for some reason, you begin to gain an intimate understanding of this phenomenon of thought.
In my case, I wanted to live in Johnyland. A place were no-one pissed me off and everyone did what I wanted them to do.
Problem is everyone else was trying to get things to go their way.
And thus is humanity. A few billion people who all want a different world, and body, from the one they’ve been landed with. Be they the richest person in the land or the poorest, with very few exceptions.
I wasn’t one of those exceptions, that’s for sure. But that’s why you meditate.
6.30 a.m. sitting on the simple floor by the simple bed, eyes closed, trying to accept the moment as time goes by and I wriggle around to avoid it.
Minutes and hours, there are to be many of these.
The breakfast gong rings…
6.36 a.m. porridge, fruit, herbal teas and bread.
Most of the meditators have already started getting stuck into the food. I’ve been to these courses before, and I know now to try and avoid hungry mob, preferring to rock up a little slowly and avoid all the vibes – man. Toast pops up, knives spread vegemite and jams, and everyone has a cup of tea or cereal beverage somewhere in reaching distance. There is no coffee and no words, just mouths going up and down, chewing.
This is noble silence. We do not communicate other meditators, at all, for the 10 days. Not by word or action or little notes written on gum leaves. There’s no break from this silence, it is observed from the time you wake, till the time you go to sleep, right up until the final day. No gossip sessions at all. No moment to compare notes or discuss life, just quiet, that sometimes deafening, scary sort of quite…
There is a pond outside, I am out on the decking, by the fish that swim around, fat and plump and protected from evil fishermen, I rest my bowl of porridge on my crossed legs. I see the feet of Evan walk past, I suspect he slept in, and then those of Kosio, he probably couldn’t find the dining hall, or nipped out for a fag — but that’s none of my business, back to my own breath and mouthfuls of food.
I eat my food at normal pace, it swirls in my mouth between my teeth, then down my throat and into my stomach. Then I sip my peppermint tea and start again on the porridge and stewed fruits. I flick a little piece of oat to the goldfish, just to see if they’ll go for it.
Yep, they’re at it like flies to honey. And it’s back to my breath and back to the food and back to the thoughts that swim around in my head. Sad thoughts. Thoughts of the farm, the goats, the time I planted a little tree by the dam and almost stepped on a tiger snake, breaking up with my first girlfriend, sitting by a river, crying. Times I spent sick from bongs, headaches pounding, no money, no job, no hope. A little garden in Newcastle on a storm water drain, a night with Agatha in a Dublin bed, my father slumped drinking his third bottle of bed, sliding down into his chair…
6.50 a.m. I retreat from the retreat, avoiding the feet of friends and the re-actions they provoke. I go straight for the shower — oh such hedonism, hard to catch a breath here, but I manage a few as my naked body feels the warm waterfall. In the present circumstances, it’s better than sex as the water drips down off my penis.
7.15 a.m. Walking around in circles, a breath here a thought there. A bird on a fence on a frosty spring day in Herodsford, a bucket full of milk under a cow in Wexford. More thoughts than breath, more stress than peace. I pace around exercising this body that’s just going to go away one day. And I sit on a large rock for a while until it’s time to pace again, round and round the gums, quite cold this morning I notice, that’s mountains for you.
A siren screams by on the nearby road. They’d evacuate us if the flames got to close wouldn’t they? Of course they would. How close would they have to be though? Could we talk to each other if we were escaping the flames. Back to the breath and the sound of my feet hitting the ground and twigs and leaves…
Breakfast is just starting to settle and then, the gong…
8.00 a.m. Group Meditation in the hall.
No one looks like monks and nuns, apart from their bowed heads and lack of words. The hall is dim, it is always dim, just enough light to avoid crashing into each other while you find your spot and your cushion. I sit and deicide I’m going to take this course seriously, very seriously, try to capture every breath make up for my little sleep in this morning. Can’t expect too much from me the first day, I haven’t exactly been in training for this.
People finish shuffling in and finding their places, wiping sleep from there eyes, some looking like a bunch of hippies, others like “normal” Sydney folk up in the mountains to avoid the stress. And all the places are filled – haven’t lost anyone yet.
The assistant teachers arrive with their audio tape and sit at the head of the room. They compose themselves. Then the bloke presses play.
Goenka, the name of the Indian who teaches this thing, sings out a raspy Pali chant from the tape deck. Every session starts with a chant, words from the Buddha that are supposed to inspire your arse to stay on the mat for another hour or two.
Then come the words that are repeated over and over again:
“Start again, start again. (They are drawn out words more like, staaaaart agaaaaiiiiin). Start with a calm and quiet mind, a peaceful mind, alert and attentive mind.”
And then the breath, again with the breath, and instructions on observing the breath. There is nothing but the breath, that is why they call it annapana sati. And it means nothing more than awareness of the breath.
We sit in silence, eyes closed, and practice. This technique, preserved in Burma for over 2,500 years, is all about the practice of observing the moment, as it is.
In one way, life is breath, you always have it, from birth to death —even trees and fish.
And we sit there in silence, the whole group trying to achieve the same thing without trying, trying to reach Nirvana through the breath, trying to understand life by sitting back on your arse and watching one of its main sources, not trying to change the breath, just observing it…
In and out, in and out. Tina rejected my proposal to go out with her in grade seven – I didn’t like that, I was embarrassed by that, I wish I hadn’t even asked the stupid cow. In and out. The first night I slept with Petra, the fire going, I’d do it again at the drop of a hat. In and out, the breath touches a spot below the nostrils, it goes in, in, in, then it turns, like the tide and is exhaled, out, out, out.
There’s no mirrors, no fancy tricks — what you see is what you get. And the mind wanders – my mother never bought me processed cheese you know, everyone else had processed cheese, why not us? And what was with the carob Easter eggs. Easter is for chocolate you health freak. I don’t want goat’s milk, I want cow’s milk! and then I catch another breath, some fleeting air up my nose and I’m with the moment, just for a moment… though it is still so hard to stop wishing the clocks would turn back and I had my time again, to sit in the playground unwrapping the plastic crap that I so desired, even though I know now it just doesn’t actually taste any good. And the hour keeps going and going and the cheese keeps coming back from time to time but it gradually gets replaced by the time I got a Scooby Doo show bag from the Brisbane Ekka. It was a paper bag, not a plastic one. Scooby Doo is good, Scooby, Shaggy and processed cheese…
9.00 a.m. the tape starts again, the hall relaxes and chanting fills the air. After the chanting stops the people file outside to stretch their legs and relieve their bladders (not there on the lawn of course – though at night you can slip off to the nearby gums for a slash, but that’s night and this is day), and the minutes go the gong sounds, and I start again. An hour and a half till lunch/ dinner, exactly the same as the hour before (though I think my mother did the right thing with the cheese, it’s not really that nice, it’s horrible, horrible processed cheese, doesn’t melt it bubbles, yeah, who needs it) the tape starts again, and meditate again. I’m never so scared of time as I am here all these moments and moments, millions of them billions of them, like ants. Actually that is an ant. How did that get in here? Does it like processed cheese. Oh my god, why the hell do I care so much about the bloody cheese, get the hell over it John.
After a bit of internal discussion, some culinary concerns I’ve had for years – apart from the cheese and believe me there’s more than the cheese in my life, I’ve not got a one slice mind, there’s huge issues I have in my life, I just need to get the superficial wrapping out of the way to deal with it, and I’ll get to that, I’m sure – the audio teacher asks the new students to go, silently (of course), to their residential quarters and continue to meditate whilst the old students get their special instructions – which really aren’t that special I’m afraid. I’m not that special (weep, weep).
The new students are asked to observe the breath at any point between the opening of the nostrils and the back of the nose — no further (and they are not asked at the moment as they are back in the residential quarters at the moment, but they were asked earlier I just didn’t mention it earlier as I had more on my mind – to be honest I wished I’d had sex with that Catalonian girl I shared a bed with in Dublin, but I’LL GET TO THE BIG ISSUES). Us old hands are asked to narrow our focus of the breath down to a smaller area between the entrance of the nostrils and the upper lip (sexy). And very old students, old in the sense of how many course they’ve done, and not in terms of how close they are to falling over and having a heart attack in the middle of this whole bloody thing, are asked to focus on the “touch of the breath”, or the sensation of the breath touching somewhere in that same area above the lip and below the nostrils. An area about the size of the average pinkie finger tip.
The venerable Webu Sayadaw, a stern monk from the town of Webu in Burma and master of this technique, now dead, but when he was alive he didn’t even get stressed out by a thousand mosquito bights he was so cool and advanced that he didn’t even care, in fact he probably didn’t even exist at some stage, he was so advanced, he probably just walked around not existing, and it was only his disciple who thought he existed because they weren’t advanced enough to recognise that the man they saw wasn’t here. Of course the mosquitoes were very far from the truth when they bit him, but blood was blood, whether it existed or not.
Anyway old Webu Sayadaw, the super monk of the mountains of Burma, was big on this touch business. He said it was his gateway to nirvana. If nirvana exists. Understandably, many think that’s a load of shit.
But feel free to argue, for I really don’t care, I do care about the bird-sized mosquitoes that are hovering around like Harrier Jump Jets, but I’ve agreed bot to squash the pricks – but watch out in nine days, for I am under no obligation to let you suck my life away from me then you horrible creatures…
We keep observing the breath in absolute and “noble” silence. No sounds from our mouths apart from the occasional porridge induced burp, which is bloody hilarious at the time – like situation comedy it is ont funny outside the situation. And some laugh and then they go back to the breath, the more experienced laugh and watch the breath at the same time, and the really old students don’t laugh at all, generally being a really composed lot who welcome the mozzies. I can do that sometimes, I will do that sometime I mean, I’ll just work on it a bit. My breathing becomes heavy as a bug tries to take advantage of my pledge, but I weather the storm and I start to feel a little closer to God and the clouds and all the happy people who sit on mountain tops.
Sometimes I think that I am so good, that I wonder why I haven’t been ordained a Dalai Lama by this stage in my meditation career. Perhaps it’s got to do with cutting up fish, taking drugs and chasing women. Oh, yes, forgot about that Swiss girl. Oh well, it’ll never work out anyway, those things never work out. And the breath goes in and the breath go out. And in and out, and in and out.
And the hour goes by, followed by the half hour…and a few more minutes and a few more minutes, then a few more minutes as your stomach grumbles swirling around gass and your mouth begins to water and you swallow your spit and really try and meditate just to take your mind off things.
A doughnut covered with chocolate and chopped-up peanuts, just like the one my mother used to buy me when I when she went to that coffee shop in Tweed Heads. Watching them on the conveyer belt as they plop into the oil and come out golden brown, then smell of coffee, the firm chocolate and the nuts…
11.00 a.m. Gong, lunch/ dinner.
They put on a pretty good spread at these centres. All vego stuff of course. Beans and lentils and vibrantly healthy salads with bits of seed in them, often followed by some sort of sweetish desert. I must admit the fish look pretty good swimming around there in the pond as I walk along the decking into the dinning hall, but there’s a time and a place for that — and it isn’t here I’m afraid.
There’s normally plenty to eat, unless you get some hoarder on the course who’s read the pamphlet carefully enough to realise he ain’t getting no dinner, besides a few bits of fruit, and thinks he better stock up at lunch.
The men and women dine, sleep and meditate separately. It stops hanky-panky and all that non-serious stuff that most people of the world enjoy doing, or are outlawed from doing in states such as Afghanistan, and frowned upon for doing in many states of the United States (Jesus loves you! But everybody else thinks you’re a dickhead).
It needs to be mentioned that you do not do this particular form of meditation for enjoyment. It can be very beneficial, but certainly not enjoyable. It is hard work, no two ways about it. And it requires a certain discipline, that frankly, most average people find difficult to keep up — myself included, but ten days is ten days and even I can maintain a certain level of interest for that time be it fleeting and in amongst a lot of complaining and a little bit of genuine insight from time to time..
I eat my salad mouthful by mouthful, and the dhal type thing in the same way, catching a breath in between swallows. People file by and walk around looking at the sky or listening to the birds and the fire engine sirens as they whiz by to what could be humungous blazes burning out of control in half of the Blue Mountains for all we would know – hell World War III could have broken out and they wouldn’t tell us till the tenth day. You get used to those speculations though but you way them up against chocolate covered doughnuts with peanuts on top.
Dinner over, and for me, the last meal of the day, and it’s again with the walking and the breathing and the occasional smell of burning eucalypts up the road somewhere. The place has begun to heat up again, it’s going to be a scorcher I can tell, people go for their shorts and shirts, and showers if they haven’t already had one. People are still optimistic, I know this from past experience, they’re still hoping for some intellectual entertainment after lunch, some discussion on how the universe is like an onion or some other airy-fairy treatise on how the world is all just a figment of our imaginations. They’re still thinking all this hard meditation on the breath is a precursor to something more fun more like an entertaining Buddhist documentary on SBS television hosted by a very thoughtful man who likes to put his hands together in front of his chest, as though he is praying, when he’s discussing a very deep and insightful point about LIFE.
Of course I can’t really tell what other people are thinking. But lets just say I was looking for that kind of Oprah moment when I first came to these centres…
Outside is too hot, so I try bed again and lay down watching my breath and thoughts as a few trucks and tourist cars zoom through the mountains in the real world of cars and trucks.
1.00 p.m. the gong again, can I be bothered getting up. It’s summer, what about a bit of siesta man, lay back with a Gin Sling and a fishing rod. No?
This is the longest part of the day. Four hours to get through. Let’s just say fuck. Sitting for four hours with just a few breaks in between. Again, I’m thinking fishing rod, but again, nothing but my bloody breath and the strict routine:
1.00 to 2.30 meditate in your room or in the meditation hall.
2.30 to 3.30 group meditation in the hall — the second of the day.
3.30 to 5.00 meditate in your room or in the hall.
Hasn’t got the ring of a mantra really. But on different days you do try and turn it into one in case there is one hidden message there.
Mediate in room or hall meditate in room or hall, meditate, meditate, meditate, what are they trying to tell us? Maybe they want us to meditate in our rooms or the hall, or maybe they are just trying to get us to meditate all the time, anywhere. That’s what they keep telling us I guess, and I work on the hidden possibilities of the timetable for some time, until I’m not sure what time is any more and I just start looking at my breath for something to do before I get any madder…and eventually after a thousand seconds and many minutes and a few hours, I find myself in the hall again, meditating again, with a whole bunch of people who only have some vague idea of what’s going on, some probably trying to work out more than just the timetable. Some probably thinking that maybe there isn’t anything to work out in the first place. Because I’m perfect, I just came here to be told that.
“John, you are perfect, you can go home now, we can’t help you any more. Yes, you were right the timetable means nothing, time means nothing, top notch, go back and catch yourself some fish, we’ll see you in Nirvana.”
But they’ve never said that. I’m waiting though, I expect it at any moment.
At different times of the day, normally in this afternoon block, the teachers check up on the students. On Day One it is in the period from 3.30 to 5.00. They get people up in small groups, of about 3 to 5, depending on the size of the course, as everyone sits in silence, practicing this breath thing, and ask them whether they are beginning to become aware of the breath. There’s no points awarded or anything. No stars or smiling faces. No, “gee whiz Mary! You saw four breaths! That’s fabulous!” or “Kosio, what do you mean you can’t see your breath? It’s right there in front of the nose! Go to the back of the class and try harder.” Although I wish they would say that to Kosio, as he thinks he’s so good. He needs a kick in the butt.
No, they just ask, and quietly encourage you along and then you sit in front of them for a few minutes and continue to mediate.
And you continue to meditate for the entire course, in silence, as stated earlier – you can’t state this enough. It is a very simple thing, but people need to be told again and again. The first few days of the course, you watch your breath and nothing else. There’s a short discourse in the evening, but we’ll get there when we get their, no rush, still like 50,000 seconds to go or something like that, I need a calculator, but they don’t let you have calculators here.
Back to the breath. 49,999 seconds to go – if my math is right, I’ll have to check afterwards.
5.00 p.m. gong again. Time for fruit, if you’re new, and lemon water if you’re old. Still a few hours to go, and there’s still no line dancing or weird Buddhist rituals, unless you consider sitting on your arse most of the day watching your breath in total silence weird – but why would you think that? jeeze.
I could be fishing, I could be smoking a big spliff, I could be heading off for a steak sandwich. I could just walk away and not come back, but I just sit my lemon water and look at the fish swimming around in the pond (with an occasional glance into the girl’s section, just to make sure that girls still exist and to be sure that they still have breast – and they do, though I have to double check).
Occasionally people just get up and tell everyone else what a pack of dickheads they are and escape from the course (usually on the second day). You take it on the chin, think, “fair enough”, but most people stay, at least for the first day.
On my first course I thought they were a bunch of sado-masochists and I only stayed because I hated giving people the satisfaction of defeating me. I’d been through a turbulent childhood with an alcoholic father, and had some rocky years as a teenager, bombed out of my brain on pot and mushrooms, like most teenagers in Australia — and I wasn’t about to let a bunch of peace-loving, lentil-munching Buddhists get the better of me.
And at the end of the course I was glad I stayed. It was certainly a turning point in my life. A rather uncomfortable one, both physically and emotionally, but life’s not always a bed of roses. And roses are just the tip of a very thorny and ugly bush which you really wouldn’t want to sleep on anyway…
Breath in, breath out.
6.00 p.m. break’s over, gong goes, another group meditation in the hall.
And yes, we sit, and yes we watch our breaths for another hour, which is, hang on, sixty seconds in a minutes, sixty minutes in an hour, that’d be about, oh, who knows, about 36,000 or something, though it usually feels like longer.
7.10 p.m. now comes the only time when we get a little external pleasure as they roll out the VCR and we get our video discourse started, which goes for about an hour and a half most nights, sometimes longer or shorter.
A lot of people see the teacher, Mr Goenka, for the first time on the old television screen. He’s a fat Indian, who sits cross legged, beside his rather plump wife. He talks and explains the day’s activities, which, for many, are surely perplexing.
He doesn’t actually tell us too much more than we’ve already know. That’s kind of the point, we’re here to learn for ourselves. Most people have had the old brain-washing by whatever religious, political or philosophical background we come from. They call it faith, or political conviction or whatever, and sometimes you believe it and sometimes you don’t. But there’s really no substitute for experience.
Goenka sits on his bum and talks about the monkey mind and how it grabs a thought here and there like branches in the jungle, or doughnuts in a Tweed Heads coffee shop. You might use a different metaphor, but you’ve just been sitting down for a pretty long day, noticing the same thing for God knows how many seconds. He talks about how you feel about such thoughts — dividing them into “good” or “bad” — and you’ve sat for a day seeing the same thing.
And people begin to realise that this guy isn’t any more special than themselves and he says he isn’t any more special than you, but somehow you still want to hear that he is. Though, one should say he does provide enough inspiration to continue for at least another morning, which is remarkable in itself considering how boring the whole process can be for the weak minded fishermen like myself.
As the tape rolls on, and it only seems to last for a few moments as it is the only bit of excitement we’ve had all day, apart from the goldfish and the lentil stew, and soon everyone, if they hadn’t realised it earlier, realise that they are going to have to do all this exploration of themselves, themselves, for another nine fucking days. And the video tape ends, and the people file out to stretch their legs and they come back inspired enough to continue on with the course — or they start planning their escape to a Bondi pub and some loose women. If they do escape they tend to do it on day one or around day four to six, when the technique of mediation is changed to Vipassana, or insight mediation. Generally, if they survive those days, they finish the course.
8.30 p.m. back in the hall, back with the breath, thoughts of bed and fears of the next nine days. This is generally the quietest time of day, where people are really making an effort, sure of what they are doing, for about half an hour, and why they are doing it, until 4 a.m rocks around again and they start looking for some significance in the all this gong business – maybe the message is in the gong. Everyone’s breathing, everyone’s trying to watch the breath. And they continue, eyes closed, in silence, some tummies grumbling, not used to skipping dinner.
9.00 p.m. the tape is played, the teacher chants his Pali then sends us off to bed…
“take rest, take rest, take rest”.
And you sleep soundly and before you know it’s Day Two.
That is the a day in the life a monk or nun. If it sounds exciting, it isn’t.
Chapter 14: nothing new, escape is nigh
Today’s the day we start talking again. A lot has happened, a lot of seconds have come and gone, a lot of thoughts have passed, and a fair bit of insight gained. The place has become a bit of a mental hospital. People have been wandering around about as introverted as they can get without having their body turned inside out and coming back to the real world is going to be a shock. It’s the day when you start thinking the car’s registration needs to be paid, well it’s the day when Kosio thinks that – I just want to go and eat a fish and a steak sandwich without the cops pulling us over and telling us that we can’t drive around any more unless we fork over a few hundred dollars to the Victorian government.
On day four we started the practice of Vipassana meditation. It’s a little difficult to explain, but basically you shift your attention from your breath to different sensations on your body. You go from head to toe and toe to head, observing itches, heat, cold, pleasant and unpleasant sensations. You get subtler and subtler, and as you get subtler sensations you also notice in more detail how your “monkey mind” operates.
The time table is the same (there is now hidden message as afr as I can work out) , and the silence continues. No of us, if we haven’t been cheating, have said a word to each other for over a week. In normal life you’d think we were all grumpy with each other — perhaps pissed off that someone keeps leaving the cap off the toothpaste or letting the milk go sour on the table after breakfast. Although those sort of stories belong more in the works of John Brimingham and his deeply insightful books on share house living. He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, What a name for a book, better than The Book of Fish, you’re thinking, but we’ll wait a few thousand years to see whose book is better remembered. Let’s face it, Felafel is not likely to be accidentally added to future copies of the Bible, whereas Book of Fish, could easily be added after revelations as a sort of denouement: and then, after all the world had been judged and those who believed in Christ were all sent to heaven, Earth was free to once again enjoy Buddhism and fishing in peace.
There’s only a few small changes towards the end – of the meditation course that is, not the Earth, though I’m sure I don’t want to be around to see that one, it was scary enough when Princess Leia’s planet was destroyed by the death Star – though not quite as scary as George Lucas’s later attempts at making films. On the last few days we are introduced to adhitthana, during the three hour-long group meditations. Adhitthana means strong determination and in practice here it means making a strong effort to not move for an entire hour. That is, not open your eyes, uncross your legs, move your arms or any other part of your body for a whole hour, three times a day whilst meditating. Not as easy as it sounds, and sometimes a lot more painful than it sounds as it is often one of those hours that lasts 360,000 seconds.
We also are asked to mediate continuously, even when walking around or having a crap. Though you don’t have to have your eyes closed for these activities, unless you’ve experienced the famous vipassana constipation and then, you’ll know what I mean. But that’s all coming to an end now, the last session in silence is over, people file out of the hall and begin to face each other and the sunlight for the first time in a while which does loosen the bowels a bit. And everyone’s lips.
I stay in the hall until everyone has left, then head to the walking track.
The track runs through the forest, and has a magnificent view of the sweeping greenish-blue tree-covered hills that make up the Blue Mountains. My mind is really quite focussed, quite calm, the thoughts are “under control”, as much as you can control thoughts, and my mind spends more and more time on my breath and body’s sensations.
I notice the little projects that the mental patients have been working on during this course. They are in the form of little shrines made of bits of rocks and sticks that line the paths, I cross the path of another meditator who has also escaped the crowds and have to smile at the little constructions.
People are nuts, I like them. I really like them — today, no one pisses me off.
The Indians have a saying:
“The path is full of sharp stones and thorns, so wear some sandals and just walk over them. Then they won’t worry you.”
The gong’s sound floats through the air. I notice smoke in the distance asanother fire engine screams past. We weren’t burnt this time.
There’s an overwhelming feeling of relief and achievement in the air and not just because we weren’t engulfed the flames.
I stare out into the valley alone. Knowing not man, nor myself, nor the forest. Behind me the centre starts reverberating to the sounds of freedom. I go back, a tear in my eye.
Evan’s there by the new student’s accommodation looking like he’s seen God, I walk over, pretty sensitive as you can imagine.
“Fuck, your eyes are look like some sort of Yogi, how did you go?” Evan asks, his black goatie wagging below his bottom lip.
“Good. It was pretty good.”
Kosio joins us.
“That was interesting.”
“Sorry about the smoking incident.” I say.
“Well, I was bit pissed off about that.” He reply’s.
“Yeah, well I couldn’t really apologise once it all started. Did you get much out of it?”
Evan and Kosio reply at the same time, “yes.”
They looked rejuvenated, the boring sitting and silence had done its job once more and Kosio looked like he hadn’t been -we all looked like new men, apart from the women who were still over on their side but probably looking like new women.
We still had a few sessions to go — limited to the three, hour-long group meditations and the evening discourse — and we weren’t leaving till tomorrow, but the worst of it was over. Day Ten was come down day, for as you might be aware, the normal Australian society still hasn’t grasped the idea of monks and nuns running around the streets, so we had a day to adjust, look at the sky again, hear the birds and talk, talk, and talk.
The centre begins resonating with amazing tales of insight and realisation. “I was thinking about those fish in the ponds.” Says a smiling Kosio — and it’s a smile I’ve never seen again on his face, one that stretches from ear to ear.
“So was I man, so was I.”
And as the day goes by we meditate for an hour, then talk for a few hours, then we go over and chat with the women (or try and chat up the British backpacker in Evan’s case), and we talk and talk. I was back on the Corinne though, did she wait or did she go.
And the day finishes and the night goes by and life continues as we rush around the forest being friends.
The next morning we pack up, get our final little discourse from the boss and head out the gates. Evan back to Melbourne, and Kosio and I back to the poor neglected blue Mazda — wonder what he got out of all this?
Chapter 16: walking past the cuckoo’s nest.
The damaged Mazda down heads towards a heavily secured site with large fences, floodlights, a Nazi style sentry post, tyre spikes and a mean looking dog with bubbles dripping from the side of its mouth with a sign next to it saying, “please pay as you enter”. It feels a bit like a refugee centre, only with not as many facilities.
“Registration number?” the bitch — I mean park manager — asks as we head through her door.
Kosio is not happy, the stupid cow — I mean lady — asks for $12 each for the night.
“Let’s go and find a place in the bush.” He suggests under his breath as the fat ogre slimes her way into the back of the office.
I suggest that perhaps we might consider the fact that the car, with its missing window, might be safer with these security freaks and their fences and also that we had social obligations to our foreign guests.
He points out that he is foreign as well and I point out that he isn’t likely to sleep me, and even if he is I’d still prefer to try and sleep with the Swiss girl.
I give him $5 towards his part of the tariff, in spite of the fact that he’d saved an entire fortnight’s worth of sickness benefits whilst he was at the meditation centre. Penny pinching refugees.
The five-buck bribe hits me hard, my funds are running low and the student benefits will be getting cut off at the end of December. But I see it all as an investment — men are always willing to invest in their penises.
Who knows, I could end up marrying this chick. She might even own an expensive chalet in the Swiss Alps. Maybe even with some goats.
I wouldn’t mind some goats of my own.
The ugly, inbred, drooling, half-man, half-woman creature comes back to the counter and fills out her forms in silence.
“Where are the showers here?”
“Down to your left. You’ll need some dollar coins to operate them.”
Kosio looks at me and shakes his head in absolute disgust. He is almost trembling.
“All right, I’ll give you six bucks. Jesus Christ.”
I’ll just have to try and sell the pot I have hidden in the stereo, otherwise this whole trip will be fucked — and not in a good way, I think.
“Mind your language please”, the manager blurts out without looking up from her papers.
“Shove it up your arse “, I say. Or I should have said, if I hadn’t been such a wimp and wasn’t so desperate for Corinne.
We place a towel over the broken window — like all the surfers do when they’re drying them, one end fixed tight in the door — to stop it looking like an obvious target for the thieving scumbag community that lived in this part of Australia. There wasn’t a whole lot to worry about though, for in the cold, hard light of day, the Mazda was a shitty looking piece of crap that was unlikely to attract much interest. Unless some Indian scrap metal merchants happened to be passing by.
“It’s got a good engine though,” Kosio keeps re-minding me.
And it has got a nice engine…
And then I see Corinne in a tight white shirt, smiling at me in the distance. She walks over, through the cars, and I can’t hear a thing as I stare into her eyes…
Around 1 p.m., tide coming up the beach.
Kosio and Petra walk up ahead as Corinne and I lag behind. The peninsula is proving further off than I had first anticipated, for the bay kind of curves a great deal, as bays tend to do. We walk and walk and it’s hot.
“What did you do at this meditation?” Corinne asks.
“Meditate.” I reply.
“Is it a cult?”
“Are you sure?”
“I think so.”
“You don’t know! These things can be dangerous, that princess form Monaco was killed by this cult, you know. Ai yei yei.”
“I don’t know what one it is. Does it matter a cult is for cult people.”
She takes her top off and throws it on the ground and her tits are pointing out at me from underneath her bathers saying, “hello Johnie.” And of course, I forget what we are talking about, though I see her lips moving, so she must be saying something. I nod and shake my head at the appropriate moments. How do those monks do it for years? They must explode.
As if recovering from a shell blast, my hearing returns.
“Let’s swim.” She says, and she dives into the water.
“I wouldn’t go out too far!” I yell to Corinne as she frolics like Julie Andrews too close to the sharks for my liking.
“There’s a big hole out there.”
There was a big hole out there, capable of sucking an unsuspecting tourist under and into the shark’s jaws. Mostly I wouldn’t care, but this one had such nice rosy cheeks.
I didn’t have to warn Kosio, he’d never venture out past his knobbly white knees. He sits on the beach, smoking with Petra, the odd bit of water coming up and covering his toes.
“I think that guys are more nomadic than women,” he starts, unwilling to abandon his philosophical meanderings for too long, “girls create this home atmosphere.”
“What do you mean? That women should stay at home.” Petra’s face didn’t really change, I couldn’t tell whether she was asking a question or chastising the east European.
“No, I don’t really mean that.” Kosio had his hand raised in defence of his theory. It was really a gentle hand, I knew him well enough to know that. “But you know, they are good at home. Men are no good at these things. They like to hunt, you know, get into some action.”
I watch Corinne, what a smile she has, her hair wet and salty and so familiar.
I roll some tobacco, with some sand and salt, and what I think is a small piece of seaweed, it grates against the paper, like a teacher scraping her nails down a blackboard, as I watch the whole world — love, politics and nature.
My mind is still floating into space, and I’m scared for a moment. In an infinite universe, I think, everything is possible, but most things are unlikely, as I abandon my cigarette before I light it.
Corinne runs up to me, at a pace I can remember from my teenage years, before the pot, before the mushrooms. She dries her dark hair with a brightly coloured towel that looks like it has been purchased in the past three months. I look down at mine. I can’t remember when I’d bought the faded fraying thing, or even if I had bought it at all.
Probably got it from Santa. Or Maybe Satan.
She shakes her hair and tiny droplets splash on my face, sparkling in the sunshine.
I stop thinking and just observe. Corinne looks at me looking at her.
“What do you think about?”
I pause, I’d heard the words, but they didn’t seem to mean much, my response was honest and automatic as I smile.
“Nothing at all?”
“Not really, no.”
And I dive into the water myself, just to take the edge off the day.
Around two we reach what looks like a small military hospital. It lays between us and the entrance to the bay.
I spot what looks like a nurse, stationed in a kind of sentry box, shuffling around papers or drugs — what was it with this bay and military style architecture? I go up to her and disturb her shuffling.
“Can we walk through here?”
She looks up in the same way as Norman Bates does in Psycho when checking in guests. “Y-e-s, it is o-kay.” She says in a slow drawl. And it is kind of appropriate in a way, for as we venture in we realise that we are in a mental hospital, circa 1950.
We see patients through the windows of the barrack-like buildings. Kosio turns to me.
“From one mental hospital to another.”
Corinne, in turn, turns to look at me.
“He meant the meditation centre. We’re not nuts.”
Petra’s face takes a turn for the worse. She is quite pretty, she shouldn’t frown so much.
Out in the sunshine, one of the inmates is busily rocking back and forth, oblivious to our presence. He has blood and scratches all over his large, round face and prominent forehead, but he looks warm in the sun. We all stare at him, except Kosio. He just glances, lights a cigarette and soldiers on. He’d already been there, done that, in Sofia, when he was conning the Bulgarian army.
“How can these people, let them do this to themselves?” Asks Corinne stunned as a mullet.
“I don’t know.” I say, feeling that perhaps I should have come up with a better response, considering this was my country.
But I didn’t have the faintest idea that places like this existed until now and I knew even less about the rules that governed them. Or anything much, if I come to think of it.
Everything is very, very, big, and I am so, so small. I don’t even know myself…
There is a large, long dinning hall to the left of us, with over a dozen rowdy men and women being spoon-fed drugs and porridge. Some of their heads twitch while others wave their arms around with little control, accompanied by loud screams and moans.
I kind of like them in a way, so free. If I had the option I’d probably scream and have someone else give me my drugs. Just for a change, I might sit and rock and not care about the world nor what it thinks of me.
No job, no money, just a motion back and forth. It would bring a kind of comfort I think.
We reach the safety of the other side. It is beautiful. Waves roll slowly and powerfully into the bay, past some jagged islands just off the peninsula. They’d crush a boat without a thought.
That’s the way nature is, a reminder of our frailness.
We stand on the rocky out-crop, a steep hill to our right, and a block of concrete in front of us. We sit on the block and just watch the waves roll in.
“Wow?” says Kosio, “It’s beautiful”.
I look at him, then I look to the islands and the rushing water, and the waves keep coming.
Who cares, I whisper to the breeze. And I watch a wave disappear, gone before I know it.
I turn to Corinne and Petra, who don’t seem like happy tourists. I guess most tourists skip these sort of places.
“We shouldn’t be here I don’t think,” Corinne says as she stands on the concrete beside me.
“It’s a beautiful ocean isn’t it,” I say smiling, sea spray drifting through the air.
“Yes, this is nice”, she says pointing out to sea, but then she turns around a points to the people shuffling from the dinning hall, “but this is not so nice.”
I look back. Perhaps I’m already mad and just don’t know it.
“Well, let’s get some afternoon tea then.”
And a loud, squealing grunt comes from the nut house. And the man keeps rocking back and forth in the distance baking in the afternoon sun, his blood dripping on the pavement. Bright red.
Chapter 17: Flowers? How about fish.
Well the first date didn’t go that well, it was madness — literally.
As the sun sets over the bay, Kosio and I finally get to see our dolphins.
They are playing around near this long rock groyne, not far from the main street. Of course the bastards are probably scaring away our fish, but they looked good as they dive and swirl and circle and chomp.
It’s not in my heart today to take anything away from their games. If we get no fish, we get no fish.
I had promised Corinne dinner though. Some sort of seafood I said.
The bait has run out, the fishing seems more like work than play. My hands stink and I don’t like it, I want a fire and a nice cup of coffee.
But I am driven to go on, convinced that I can rectify the damage I’ve done taking the girls to the mental asylum. Though it’s an interesting experience and surely something they’ll be able to tell their friends back home. Better than sitting on some sterile beach in the Whitsunday’s sipping something with a paper umbrella in. Every Tom, Dick and Idiot does that.
I look in the tackle box and see my two lures shining out at me like King Arthur’s sword.
I didn’t use lures very often; too much effort. You have to move them around and bob them and make them look like real fish or prawns. There was no real room in the process for toking on a nice spliff, or sipping on a take away caffe latte.
But I have no choice. I tie on my green metallic fish; its belly lined with barbs. I throw it in and retrieve it a few times not really optimistic, just going through the motions.
It is now a little cool, a little dark, the pier’s lights spring into action. I throw out the fish again and, wham, I have us some dinner.
I feelt like a Texan roping a steer as I reel in the beast, which is fighting for dear life. It takes one last shot at freedom as it comes closer to the wooden pylons, but it is hooked too well and I flick it onto the decking, like one of those fellas on the Tuna boats.
“What is that?” Asks Kosio, as the sleek green-trimmed dart-shaped fish flaps around snarling its viscous teeth.
“It’s a barracuda.”
“Can you eat it?”
I cast back in.
“Yeah. Though I heard they can have some sort of horrible disease sometimes.”
“It looks like a dog.”
I grab the barracuda and flick it into the bucket, Kosio, obviously inspired, wants a piece of the action. He ties on the Squid Jig, this large fake fluorescent prawn with many fine barbs on its tail, and casts it in.
“You have to bob it up and down.” I say standing proud, like an Aussie’s meant to be. The only thing that was missing was my broad-brimmed hat. I reel in my shiny fish and it is hit again; and do these things fight, you bet you.
“Can I have a go at that one? This prawn thing doesn’t seem to work.” Says Kosio.
I finish taking in another barracuda, chuck it in the bucket and swap rods. I bob the jig, up and down, over the seaweed bed, trying to entice a little squid from its hiding spot.
Squid sneak up on their victims, through the weed beds. They come from underneath, just like Jaws. But instead of teeth they have a beak and these very effective legs lined with suckers which they whip out as they pounce, snaring their prey.
The hunter becomes the hunted, the prawn is snared and the unsuspecting squid is about to become calamari. It shoots out a cloud of ink as I pull it towards the surface.
And it’s into the bucket and the barracuda pointlessly tries to eat it.
“It’s not the equipment, it’s the user.” I say triumphantly, and just as I say it, Kosio also turns into a cowboy as he frantically winds in his reel.
His is quite a bit bigger than mine.
“I guess it is the equipment.” I say as I head for the showers.
How can death bring us so much pleasure?
I don’t know, I’m just glad I ain’t a fish.
Now preparing squid requires some skill. You have to peel off its wings, pull its quill out, peel its skin back, gut it, and chop off its legs just below the eyes and beak.
You pull their small gut and intestines out by getting your fingers inside and feeling for where it is attached to the body, then ripping that bit off delicately, leaving you with a handful of pipes and organs.
You can do it all in one minute if your quick. Its all in the wrists.
The calamari sat frying in the olive oil, a little pepper, a little salt, a little lemon, tré bon.
“Oh, this looks delicious!” Corinne is impressed.
So am I actually, but it feels better when someone else confirms it.
The stars shine brightly, the frying squid makes my mouth water, I flip the pieces of flesh over after sixty seconds, then in another sixty seconds I place them carefully onto plates, just like in a Melburnian restaurant. It’s an absolute sin to over cook squid, it makes it all rubbery and horrible.
It is exquisite. The nut house memory fades away with each delectable mouthful of la calamari — I wish I could have had the fellas from the institution over actually, but they probably weren’t allowed whole food there, they probably had to have it all mashed up and spoon fed. Not really appropriate for squid.
I sit back and prod the next course: beautifully filleted strips of hopefully disease-free barracuda cooking in some sort of tomato sauce which I had invented just off the top of my head, just like that — basically tomatoes and finely cut onions with salt and pepper.
Oh, and this also turned out fine, apart from the multitude of fine bones that the stupid creature had imbeded in its flesh — which obviously served a purpose when the thing was in the ocean, but in our mouths they were just spiteful.
I showed Corinne how refined I could be by refraining from swearing every time a bone stuck in the roof of my mouth. I just surreptitiously pulled them out one by one, and there were many, and threw them into the darkness.
No need to spoil a fine evening with profanities.
My father would have said, “fucking cunt of a thing.” He hates bones.
And then one lodges in my throat, and with all the charm of Cary Grant, I excuse myself, walk away and choke and splutter politely in the darkness. Kosio comes over and whacks me on the back. I wasn’t sure that that was what you were meant to do, but it seemed to do the trick…
Corinne and Petra, so impressed with the freshly killed feast, even wash up by the tap that this fine camping establishment provides.
A nice night all together I think.
“I feel for the poor Swiss men who have to hear the tales of how robust and culinary adept us Aussie are.” I say.
Kosio pours us both a Jack Daniels and coke, and he raises his plastic cup to mine.
“I’ll drink to that.”
This is a happy holiday moment.
I think a lot of people probably experience a happy holiday moment at some stage in their lives. A short period of time when they feel that they could live permanently on holiday…
Contrary to popular belief, bumming about across the countryside can be very tiring. And actual fair dinkum, Dick Smith, happy holiday moments are few and far between. Most of the time everything’s really annoying.
You’re always in these new places, you never know where the good cafes are — there often aren’t even any good cafes — you have to look at maps, and work out where north and south is and the scenery is always whizzing by before you can take a good look at it.
And pointless hours are wasted when Kosio insists that he knows where the hell he’s going, and I’m like, you don’t know where the hell your going, but since he’s driving I have to let him get lost and I end up spending hours getting hungry, suffering caffeine withdrawals and generally having a really bad time.
It’s enough to drive one to Buddhism.
I take a breath and think of all the poor souls working for so-called society looking out their windows thinking how swell life on the road would be — in the office, or at McDonalds, or on a Russian submarine — foolishly dreaming of one day becoming bums.
Little do they know how much commitment this lifestyle entails.
And, as with charity, bumming around begins at home.
You can’t just suddenly wake up one day and expect to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac. No, you’ve got to train for years.
You’ve got to go to work stoned, arrive late, quit before they fire you, find another job, quit that one before anyone knows your name, take long breaks and always make snide remarks to your superiors.
You’ve got to think that the rich are lucky and that you are not. Like the Queen of England. Why the hell is she in the position she is in? Head of state of a country of 20 million Aussie battlers. Just because she was lucky enough to be involved in some chemical reaction between some semen and an egg in someone’s stomach.
“That could have been me!”, you have to cry.
And then you have to add, “it should be me!”
And once you’ve thoroughly convinced yourself that the world is manipulated by everyone to stop you from enjoying what is rightfully yours, then, and only then, should you get into a car and drive around like you own the bloody place!
I take a moment away from my erratic thoughts.
“How much alcohol did you put in these things?” I ask, feeling a bit light headed.
“Quite a bit.”
I quickly forget what the hell I am thinking about and stagger over to get my camera.
It is an evening worthy of a photograph.
My father had a similar thought years ago when he was drunk and saw the Pope on television — I don’t think the photo turned out very well, divine presence becomes somewhat pixilated on telly.
I gather the three foreigners around the little gas cooker, with the espresso machine on top, and get everyone to smile.
The subsequent picture I have cherished — it’s up there with one that I have of myself after eating a Ganesh, on New Years Eve at the last ever Malaney Folk Festival in Queensland.
I have it up on my wall now.
There’s a piece of clothing tied around my hair, and a wicked grin that stretches from ear to ear, and pieces of straw sticking out everywhere, and my friends are up in this tree smiling, and all these hippies are playing flutes and drums…totally off their chops.
It was in the days before these fashionable, overpriced, “Es” became popular. Back when you could get real LSD.
In the times when I don’t feel like the Queen of England, I look at this picture of Kosio and the gang — precious, happy, moments.
The moon rises and falls somewhere over the bay, following an intergalactic pulley, as Kosio and Petra sleep — unfortunately in separate tents.
The squeak of a flock of bats can be clearly heard on this otherwise silent night.
“It is nice here.” Corinne whispers to me.
And she lets her hand fall close to mine, and as I touch it she pulls me towards her.
Chapter 19: bats and fluorescent eyes.
On the Way to Bellingen, afternoon.
We leave the horrible coast and venture inland, high into the hills south-west of Coffs Harbour, just by Dorrigo National Park.
The tough and rough Australian explorers of the 19th century probably took months to go as far as we have done in a day. They would have survived on just flour and water, making damper on a campfire before drinking cups of billy tea. It was a hard slog, no roads, just thick forests and trusty, yet slow horse between their legs.
“Early explorers were idiots.” I say, “If I was an early Australian pioneer, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere.” The rainforest begins to creak under the weight of so many insects. “I would have just,” I continue as I sip my takeaway café latte spilling a little on my hand as the Mazda takes on another bend, burning it slightly, “I would have just, ouch, that hurt, gone far enough away from the cops in order to carry out my bushranging activities effectively.”
“But if you were the first here, you could have just claimed all the land.”
“Ah, yes, that’s true (apart from the aborigines I think to myself, but the early explorers had this theory that they didn’t actually live here when they arrived – which didn’t stop them killing them. Just as kids don’t stop getting presents from Santa even after they stop believing in him). But the thing is, if I were a bush ranger,” I say out loud, “I could just wait until everyone else had done the hard work of finding the place, and made maps, then I could ride up and kill them and just take it all.”
There’s always an easier way. Let the suckers do the work then put a metal hat on and shove a gun up their clackers.
Anyway…sometime later, in Bellingen.
Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzzz.
“They sound like electric fences when you pee on them, don’t they?” I say.
“They’re ugly.” Says Kosio.
“I don’t think I can put one on a hook.”
“Why not? They’re just bugs.”
“Worms will be fine.” Worms don’t have large eyes.
Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzzz.
We had firmly landed in the sub-tropics and many large cicadas sat clinging to a wall beneath a light at the back of the caravan park’s office, like fridge magnets.
Large bugs prevailed in the jungle, as Kosio called it.
The friendly (or dopey if your want to be more precise) manager told us that if we wanted to catch the big bass in the waterhole, we should put these cicadas on.
I didn’t really know what a bass was though and was kind of feeling like lentils, just for a change.
“I can’t believe you’re scared of a bug.”
“So, you’re scared of putting your head under waves.”
Kosio turns serious. “That’s dangerous though.”
“Who knows, these things might be dangerous.” I knew they weren’t, but creatures can turn nasty when you put a hook through their back. Life’s a little barbaric like that.
“I love this jungle, let’s go light a fire,” Kosio exclaims like a South American cattle farmer.
I smell the air as the dusk shift of insects rubbing their legs and their wings and their abdomens together starts up and the day shift go to bed — if they hadn’t already been eaten. There’s not a very accurate word to describe the sound here. If there was it would probably be spelt something like: eeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrzzzrrrzzzzrrrreeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Beautiful humidity. Lovely sweat seeping from my body, from my armpits and back, rolling down to my thighs as the bats start heading into the sky.
If you really watch a fire you’ll see that it has many shades.
Yellow flames, tinged with blue, red tips on the burning coals, orange embers, and everything in between.
Where dose orange stop and red begin? Or orange to yellow for that matter. I asked a scientist this question once and she couldn’t even give me a proper answer. No doubt she was too busy trying to find a new chemical for toothpaste that’ll strip the enamel from your teeth while at the same time tasting like mint rather than the important issues.
The night sky is black, on the whole, but, if you look closely, there’s a whole universe out there really, with lots of colour everywhere, so it’s only mostly black. If you’d believe the Christians (and I’m talking about the religious types here, not just men who are named Christian, who can hold a whole range of views on the universe), you’d wonder why there is anything out there at all. I mean, God created earth for us to live on, and he created the stars for us to look at. I’m just wondering, if he actually did all that for us, why did he make extra planets to circle those stars, which are impossible to see from here, and which must be habitable at least for some form of life, so far away from us that we’ll never conceivably ever visit them or even catch sight of their existence.
I mean, lets face it, if the Christian God existed, then he wouldn’t have put anything out there at all — past say, Pluto.
It’s just like when they are making a set for a movie – and I’m talking about the Americans here, and not God, though the two often get confused – they just make the facade of say a Death Star, they never make the whole bloody thing, because no one’s ever going to look inside!
So, it makes sense, that if humans are that “special”, that there wouldn’t be any substance to the planets out there, because it would just be wasting God’s time to build this whole fucking thing, when no sucker is going to go look at the mother fucking thing.
Which leads me to my next point: since there is substance to planets far, far away in galaxies we are never going to visit, then God must have countless other “special” people out there that he’s telling the same cock-and-bull story to!
Just like the married airline pilot from Perth who was having an affair with my friend’s mother on the Gold Coast. He knew she wasn’t going to go to Perth and spring his little operation. In the same way God knows we are not going to go to Alfa Centori!
God doesn’t love us, he’s just using us because he knows he’s not going to get caught.
Back to earth. Looking at Corinne, her face flickering with the flames. Thinking where does sadness start and happiness begin…?
Huck Finn liked catching catfish. He liked to do it the way we like to do it. Set up the rod, sit back and have a chat with some slaves – or Swiss people in our case.
We’d found the water hole of Bellingen, somewhere near a field, down the road from the caravan park.
All four of us were there, trying to cook bits of bread, poked on sticks and stuck in the fire – lentils lost beneath some other junk in the car.
“We lived on cheese and bread for six months when we were in South America.” Says Corinne.
“Who were you there with?” I ask.
Corinne looks at me, she knows that I know damn well who she was with — her good for nothing boyfriend. “I have already told you this story. Perhaps you should stop smoking that marijuana, so you can remember better. I don’t know what you even see in smoking that stuff…”
She went on about the dope for a while, blah, blah, blah, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her boyfriend, as though thinking about it would make any difference. She’d told me that her boyfriend had not wanted to have sex with her for the entire time she was there. Then he got malaria and had to be flown to a hospital. He still had the occasional flashback episode in Switzerland — which I thought was funny.
She was using me as the holiday fling thing — she’d go back to him, sex or no sex.
I didn’t really care, or at least I told myself that. Fact is her Swissness kept me in check, challenged me, I hated when people agreed with me, it showed signs of bad judgement and it reminded me of that Charlie Chaplin quote, “any club that would have me as a member…”.
“…you should just stop smoking that stuff.” Ends Corinne. For now.
Kosio, talking to Petra, “I don’t know what the big deal is, people are doing it every twenty minutes around the world. It’s just natural. Sex is sex.”
It was then that I realised that Kosio and Petra had been screwing. I should have suspected, Kosio for some reason being a magnet for the women of all persuasions.
He never said the right thing, he smely like a damp cigarette butt, never shaved, hardly ever cleaned, but I guess he was honest about it all. And I suppose his chiselled features were quite appealing.
Corinne rests her head on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, “if you don’t stop smoking that stuff, we won’t be doing it every twenty minutes, I tell you.”
The rod jiggles a bit. Then bends over.
“Wooo, we got something!” Yells Kosio.
Pulling it in we find a little bream. A silver, quite common fish, with large eyes — kind of like a snapper, only not pink.
I grab it under the chin, and hold it in my hand.
“That’s too small.” Says Corinne, as the bream flaps its tail feebly.
“No, it’s alright.” Says Kosio.
It was small, but just on the edible side of small. I look at Kosio, I look at Corinne. I kind of feel like something besides bread, cheese and baked beans.
The bream flaps its tail like a little puppy that loves being held — or like a bream that doesn’t like being held and is trying to escape.
“Just put it on the fire.” Continues Kosio.
The mountain monastery didn’t seem to have stopped his urge to burn things alive.
“We don’t need it, we have cheese and bread.” Says Corinne thrusting her breasts forward.
I was caught between a Swiss and a hard place. The bream’s life was in my hands. More importantly, my sex life could be in my own hands if I didn’t make the right choice. And since Kosio couldn’t help in that department, and even if he wanted to I probably wouldn’t want his help anyway, I put the fish in the water, holding it upright, until it gained its breath and was able to swim away back into the hole.
“I guess it’s baked beans again,” says Kosio as he reaches for his Bowie knife and a tin of pulses.
“Beans are fine, we might get something bigger anyway.” I say.
I didn’t really care, the glow of the fire was enough.
Flying foxes screech in the trees, like vampiric monkeys. The whole place humming with life.
A bat flies over our heads. I hear its wings beating at the air.
Kosio pulls in another line.
“Hey I’ve got something on here.” He holds up a little white catfish, not longer than his hand. It twists around in the air. “What is that?”
On closer inspection I discover that the fish is an albino. An Albino catfish, it’s eyes are pink, and they glow.
“Crickey, that’s some weird fish.” Continues Kosio with an unexplained use of an old Australian euphemism.
I take it off the line, look into its pink eyes, it doesn’t know what to make of me and I don’t know what to make of it. I put it back.
And all we have is beans and cheese, and a starry night.
LATER THAT EVENING
“You know you should have to pay for a body like mine.” Corinne sits up in the tent brushing her freshly washed hair, her full, naked, white breasts thrust out in front of her with no inhibitions. I lean over and kiss her left nipple, running my tongue around it until it becomes erect. She rubs my hair and pushes me down onto sleeping bag with beautiful violence.
The trees are full of bats. The river runs metres away from our heads.
“You’re like a little baby,” she continues with the cutest of cute Alpine accents as I lean my head against my hand and watch her.
“How do you get your hair so nice and silky? Mine’s always so dry and brittle.”
“Do you wash it?”
“Of course I wash it.”
“Well you need this other stuff…after the shampoo…it’s for making your hair soft…what is it?”
“I do use condition.” I condition for Christs’s sake, stop busting my nuts.
Corinne leans over, her breasts touching my arm, “are you a homosexual or something?”
“No I just want nice hair. What’s wrong with that?”
She reaches for her Nivea créme and rubs it into face and chest, “men are not supposed to have beautiful hair, beautiful hair is for women. You understand.”
I hear the crispness of the air and feel the warmth coming from her body. Once her routine is finished she slides under the sleeping bag with me and lays her head against my chest.
“Do husbands and wives in Australia sleep naked together all the time?”
“Depends how hot it is I guess. And maybe how long they’ve been married.”
“My boyfriend sleeps in a separate room to me.” She snuggles up closer to me. “I just want you to sleep with me.”
I kiss her breasts again and her between her breast and down to her stomach. She lifts my head and I kiss her neck and ears and then I sit and she sits over me and I’m jealous of her silky hair.
“We are going to get old one day.” I say.
“What would you do if you stayed here?”
“I can’t stay here.”
I was sick of words like can’t. Like there’s some plan in the world that we can’t change. That we have to play our roles and accept our lot in life like the albino catfish just waiting for the day to come when someone pulls him onto shore.
“Well…” she starts and her legs are wrapped around my thighs, and I look up into her eyes. “You can’t ask such things when we don’t really even know each other.”
“People spend their whole lives together and never know each other.” I rest my head against her chest, but in all seriousness I can’t resist her nipples and I have to gently carouse them with my tongue, but we’re thinking now, we are with the future.
She rubs my hair and puts her cheek besides mine and I think I feel a tear on my shoulder.
“Maybe I just want love, from anyone.”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with that? Everyone wants love.”
“But this isn’t…” she can’t finish her sentence and I hold her hands and play with her fingernails.
“This isn’t what?”
“It isn’t nothing.”
“I know it isn’t anything. But it doesn’t have to be like that.”
“We are just on holidays.”
“I don’t see the logic.”
“Yeah…” and I crack up.
“What are you laughing for?”
“I’m laughing at your logic.”
“We aren’t all hippies you know.”
“I’m not really a hippy I tell you. I’m just here, with you. And I want to hear you talk about logic.”
“Ah, you know what I mean…”
“Yeah, that’s the point, I know what you mean.”
“I can’t talk in this English all the time! You idiot!”.
And she mutters in Swiss German something that sounds like it isn’t a euphemism.
“Don’t speak then.”
“Good, I want speak.”
And she’s tired and I’m tired and we lay back and rest and listen to the bats together and the silence is better.
Chapter 20: NIGHT OF THE EELS.
“Don’t go down that way.”
“We’re only an hour away from Byron Bay, I’m meant to meet Corinne there.” I raise my hands in despair.
“I’m tired, I just want to stop.” He rubs his eyes.
“But don’t go to Evans Head.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, they’re different towns for a start.”
Silence, the cold war.
“My eyes hurt at this time of day. I can’t see properly. You can stay one night away from your Swiss woman.”
(Yeah, your eyes. We’ve only been driving for four hours.)
“We could hang out in Byron, go to the pub. Do something different. There are hippies there. And good coffee — you like coffee.”
Offer a carrot.
Kosio has the indicator on. Fuck, He’s going right. He’s not listening to me. I’m not going to have fun. He won’t listen, okay be it on his head. Evans-fucking-Head! Who the hell knows what’s going on in Evans Head. Probably people with two heads, married to their sisters — listening to Country and Western. Who cares?
But, now we’re going to go there! Hope there’s at least fish.
“I bet there’s no fish,” that wasn’t really necessary, but casting a hoodoo on proceedings gives one a childish satisfaction. I might be wrong, but, when a fella casts a hoodoo bad times inevitably follow. I press my tongue against my teeth, suppressing satisfaction. He’s pissed off.
“What do you mean? The ocean’s the ocean. Of course there’s fish.” He grips the steering wheel tightly.
Ah, satisfaction, now I don’t care where I’m going.
“Okay, we’ll go to Evans Head. It might be fun.” Mumbling under my breath, “of course it won’t be as fun as Byron Bay — but that’s okay. We’ll go there tomorrow. We’ll have fun tomorrow.”
The clouds have moved in, streaking the sky. Stretching to the far horizon. Black, grey, blue, orange, red and purple. The day’s suffocation of heat, melting butter, the slow strain of doing anything — it gets to you, pressing your brain. Now I’m hungry: le faim, they say it drives a man crazy. Crazy men drive people crazy — in shitty-blue Mazdas.
Earlier that day.
“I’m sick of catching small fish I’m going for something big.”
At the tackle/tucker shop-stop, somewhere on a back highway on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Attending to some of my daily chores of stocking up equipment; finding cheap steak-sandwiches; finding a cafe latte — or two or three; trying to get decent reception on the car radio; trying to avoid the minefield of country music stations and the ever-parochial John Laws’ station — he’s the voice of Australian reason (which is not always that reasonable); buy bait; buy line; don’t spend too much money; resist tourist tea-towels and other assorted and bizarre travelling paraphernalia like snow domes from places that haven’t seen snow since the last ice-age; and find a place to fish. Sleeping and eating are afterthoughts for hard bushies like ourselves.
“A nice tailor, or jewfish. What about a shark?” My mind’s eye lights up, like Harrison Ford’s face in Raiders of the Lost Ark when anything big and dangerous came rolling or running after him.
I pick up a mean-looking fifteen-centimetre long goldey-bronze-coloured hook. A neat and ferocious device. It would be the one. The one that puts a three-pounder on the dinner table — although we didn’t have anything as luxurious as a table, the top of the Esky will do. I can taste it now.
” I need some big bait.” I pressed packages down deep in the deep freezer. I’d been poking through many iceboxes in my time and many more along the 2000 kilometres left behind us. I knew what looked good — which was generally nothing, because everything in a bait freezer has had all semblance of life long freezed from it. And I had an idea of what fish liked what bait. The trouble was, that as you travelled further north, the scenery changed — as did the fishes’ taste-buds. What was fine French cuisine to one was fancy-frog food to another.
“We’ve been using these puny prawns and pilchards for too long. The fish don’t take us seriously. We’re like the Australian film industry, we just haven’t been used to spending what it takes to get the big hits. The Jawses, The Octopussys . . . The Jawses two, three and four. We have to have Western Australian Pilchards.” They’re 18-25 centimetres long (in fisherpersons’ units). I reach into the freezer and pull out a crisp satchel of these WA Pilchards. They smell frozen; they are frozen. Knocking on them, you’d think they were hollow. I hold the packet to my chest.
“Ah, what comfort held against my breast. The highway outside wobbles with waves of heat; but here I am with you.” I’m startled by another thought, “come to think of it, if we get a lamb shank we might be in with a better chance for Great Whites.”
Love opens your eyes to the many weird and wonderful possibilities that life has to offer. I realised by the light of the fridge that I madly in love with Corinne. I was even starting to think of dumping Kosio and just going off by ourselves. Get married, live in the hills around Byron Bay.
I couldn’t wait to see her tonight. Apart from fish, it was my only thought.
Kosio likes these country pit-stops. A cup of coffee. A hand rolled cigarette. He smokes whilst he’s driving; he smokes whilst he’s walking; he smokes whilst he’s fishing. But smoking with a cup of coffee is a ritual. The rest of the day’s smoking is just filling in the gaps. These three or four daily cups of coffee are the Bulgarian’s equivalent of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It’s a concentrated effort. A sip, a puff, lay back, draw in, puff out, then sip. All other activities cease. The air tempers, troubles drown, all sound fades. Existence is put on hold. His brown leather hat slouches back, as he dreams of bushrangers and wild animals.
I peer at him through the shop window.
“That’s enough.” I’d been talking to myself for long enough now, though I make good conversation. It’s just too bad that I can’t talk to other people as well as I talk to me. That might be an inheritance from my father. What did Freud say about fathers? I don’t know. I hear a lot about Freud but I’ve never read anything of his. It’s a sign of the times — we all know about Freud but few of us know what his theories were. Something about penises and woman. It could just be hearsay, I’ve never bothered to check up on it.
I head towards the slow countryman at the counter with my booty. I’m glad that psychoanalysts live in the cities — they’d just spoil a good days romance and fishing with their intellectual jabbering.
I walk outside into the fog-cloud of heat that envelops everything in these parts from sunrise to sunset. My plastic bags brimming with hunting goods. A few semi-trailers whiz past, dust rolling from the sides of their tyres. Our plastic table tremors on the concrete. Hot wind licks my face; the flies crouch and crawl to the corners of my mouth. They stick to my mask of sweat, dust and debris. Betwixt the darts of traffic, humidity rises, lifting a crescendo of fierce little creatures — cicadas, praying mantises, centipedes, ticks — singing in the bush.
“I’m going for something big. I don’t think these fish are taking us seriously.” I hold up the hook.
“Jesus!” He is momentarily distracted from his cup of coffee.
The slow man brings out two steak sandwiches and places them on the table. I swipe at the flies that are heading for the beetroot.
“You can’t go too far wrong with a $2.50 steak-sandwich as good as this.” I take a bite, blowing insects from the corners of my mouth, “I love the country”.
The wheels of another truck whistle past, the gravel shifts like Mexican jumping beans. Behind it, a rusty barbed-wire fence and cows chewing the cud, whipping flies with their tails.
“That’s why the steaks so good,” I nod towards the bovines, “he probably just whips across the road and grabs them fresh.”
Kosio laughs, coffee pushes its way towards his nostrils.
Farming in Australia has changed over the years. Driving along you see all sorts of interesting creatures and vegetation, depending on the region. Down south you get deer, llamas, alpacas (I think they might be the same thing), water buffaloes, ostriches, emus, trout and all the stone fruit family: the apricots, peaches and all that. Up north you get camels, crocodiles (not really in New South Wales but further up), sugarcane, mangoes and macadamias — all frozen together in Weiss bars (minus the camels and crocodiles of course). You drive along out in the country and all of a sudden there’s a camel munching away. Or out of a thick cold autumn mist around Warburton, Victoria, a south-east Asian water-buffalo wanders out. A la Vietnam.
Though the most interesting thing that I saw popping up in the countryside was a bronze-whaler. They’re a type of shark; related to Tigersharks.
I was only nineteen. It was late afternoon, I was driving along, as a passenger, in a blue Bedford van with an East-German detective-novel writer, a Canberran and his dog, and some sort of British person, who was in love with a gorgeous Dutch model that was staying in Byron Bay, if I remember correctly. If he wasn’t British he sure was smitten. Latter I was told by the East-German that the model liked me! But I was always too stoned to notice. Sounds about right.
We’d just past Murwillumbah, sub-tropical New South Wales — or somewhere like that — and we were passing a joint. The Canberran wanted us to watch out for cops — though I wouldn’t think they would bother with a group like us. There were plenty of scruffy-looking people smoking pot and driving clapped out old vans along this road. Too many to choose from. The East-German writer, Jan, sat meditatively. He may have been recovering from the amount of pot that we had been smoking in our weekend away in the hills around Glenn Innes. I looked at him as I took a drag of the durry. The sun was going down behind the hills beyond the cane-fields that surrounded the road. We were quite close to a river — perhaps only ten or fifteen metres away. Then my eyes lit up like Roy Schroeder in the original Jaws.
“What?” said Jan.
“Sorry to get so excited but there’s a shark.”
The van pulled to a halt. Sure enough, a dorsal fin of almost a metre protruded from the water’s surface; weaving its way down river. It was swimming through the cane fields.
Apparently this was not all that uncommon. My mate Wayne, from the Gold Coast, says that they swim way up river sometimes, until it’s nearly freshwater, to kill some sort of parasite that lives on them. He says that calves sometimes go missing deep in the cane field territory.
And not just calves; also people. They get drunk and try swimming home across the river late at night. They are never seen again. Night is not a good time for swimming. Nor is it a good time for getting eaten by sharks on the way home from the pub. My theory is that the sharks are attracted by blood from piggeries by the rivers. I used to go fishing with my grandfather and father near one on the Tweed River — it was a nice spot and I caught one of the biggest whiting that I’ve ever seen in my life.
“You shouldn’t apologise for being excited.” Jan chastised me with a serious East-European stare. He was kind of my part-time mentor — kept telling me that it was wrong for such young men, like myself, to be smoking so much marijuana. If he was right about the Dutch model, and he wasn’t known for his sense of humour, he might have been right about young men and pot. (God damn it!) Sometimes you just wish people would push their point, or force you to listen to them!
“Sorry.” I said, immediately realising my mistake.
We had just past a camel and were heading into Evans Head. There was one place for us to stay: a caravan-park by the sea. Evans Head actually sounds like a nice place and I was beginning to hope that I may be wrong about it. I mean, we were just going to stay one night, it couldn’t be that bad. And Corinne would understand — I call the backpackers and tell her I won’t be home for dinner.
Besides Kosio and I probably needed some quality time alone. I called and left a message in Byron Bay as the sun set.
We decided not to pitch the tent, and just do a little fishing — maybe get something for dinner. I was succumbing further to starvation. A man passed by with an alcoholic expression on his face: lifeless, blank and depressing. Kosio took the conversational initiative with his thick Bulgarian accent.
“Hey mate, how are you going?” He was creepy. “Do you get much fish around here?”
The man stared at him, then his top lip wavered.
“Eels. I’ve been here for two years and I haven’t seen anyone catch much more than that.”
“Are they good to eat?” asks Kosio.
Mr Happy screws up his nose and scratches his head, explaining disdainfully, “they’re eels.” He walks away shaking his head and cursing the living.
“I think if you cook them right they’re okay,” Kosio says optimistically.
“Yeah, maybe,” I roll my eyes, my mind on bigger things, “I think there might be some tailor or small sharks out there. Shark’s nice. I don’t really know about eels.” I turn my head to one shoulder to try and stretch my muscles.
“Ah, they’re okay with a bit of soy sauce.”
Everything, apparently, was okay with soy sauce. Frankly I’ve yet to see it’s more miraculous properties in action.
The comforting, civilised, glow of television sets illuminated the caravans as night fell. As I looked around I got the feeling that the people of this caravan park may have been the living dead. They totally ignored us, and each other. A dog cowered underneath its owners’ van. It was one ugly fucking dog. An old couple walked with drooping towels, not talking to each other. They didn’t believe in Viagra around here. A surly group of Germans discussed menial chores around a foldout table. They’d had enough of each other and these bloody long, hot, Australian roads which never lead to decent German restaurants with dripulated coffee.
It looked as though most people here had just broken down and were unable to get going again — their vehicles blending with the seaside grass. I guess it was cheap here — if you didn’t want activity.
If there had been dingoes about their howls would be swirling around our ears with the wind, that was now brisk, and mosquitoes. Maybe the place had been built on a cemetery? It kind of smelt like day-old fluffy-white bread.
Kosio was big on surveys. He’d ask a million questions to a million people. He wanted to confirm the eel story. I just wanted to fish, get away from the creepy residents of the park, enjoy my anti-social activities. He managed to accost another man, who looked like he was developing a twitch, to ask about the eels. He said that some people like eels. Some people — that ‘s like saying the Chinese like it, or, it’s big in New Zealand.
My stomach was grumbling; my head ached. I wearily gathered my rod and our remaining supplies of snack survival food: half of a small bar of melted chocolate; some semi-stale crackers; a small piece of oily cheddar cheese; and half a bottle of water. It was too late to shop now. I picked up my rod and headed along a path through the swaying bushes and towards where the fish may be living. Kosio followed.
There was a small rock groyne beyond the scrub that separated us from our caravan park. The sun had gone, so I had to stumble around in semi-darkness; a half-moon occasionally showing in the gaps between clouds. I left the rod, tackle and snacks on a flattish rock and began my customary survey.
Walking towards the end of the groyne I noticed to the left of me, a fairly brisk out-going tide. That’s generally not a good sign. River mouths are mostly best in the hour or so around high-tide. When the tide is just finishing coming in and when it is just starting to go out. Especially if there are snags, which here looked quite probable.
At the very tip of the rocky outcrop I saw the hazy outline of the beach beside me and heard waves crashing before me. Only able to see their white crescents. Sprays of salt refreshed my nostrils. It carried the slight smell of decay. The smell of crabs, toadfish, sun-dried flesh and storm-water run-off. I stood gazing at the ocean.
The waves were a little too big, and the northerly current a little too strong, to try fishing straight out. We might have gotten away with it if we had some surf rods. You need something about two to three metres long to cast effectively in the surf on all but the calmest of days. You have to try and get into the gutters that dotted the coastline — normally below the point of the back of the first breakers.
If you can do that you’re in for a chance for bream, flathead, dart, or even a tailor or jewfish (depending if they’re about of course). Sometimes you’ll get a little shark: a hammerhead, a shovel-nose (though I think they’re rays, not sharks), or even a little bronze-whaler.
You used to get more of those sort of things close to shore, but with all the netting and paranoia in Australia, sharks, and most other fish, are less prevalent along Australia’s coastline — that’s anecdotal, but when you’ve lived by the ocean most of your life you remember things that may count.
Funny as I journeyed closer to my home town, how sentimental I was becoming. Kind of sad, kind of happy memories.
I vividly remember, as a child of nine or ten, seeing a shark swimming beneath a hole in a jetty on the Tweed River, by an old wooden bridge that no longer exists. It stretched about three to four metres from head to tail. I see it now, the shadowy figure with tail swooshing from side to side, going about its business. A marine Mafia figure. The hole in the jetty seemed like it was designed for the occasion. I looked on with the same intensity that I did when my dad bought home our first colour television. This was even better than TV!
It was probably a Tigershark, sniffing out the offal from the nearby trawlers and fish processing plant. The plant’s now closed and only a hand-full of trawlers remain. The sharks still hang about there from time to time. They seem to have fairly good memories — especially the big ones.
Occasionally people still get attacked at the nearby mouth of the river. The area, known as Duranbah, is one of the best surfing breaks on the Gold Coast. It’s normally just the small ones that attack, and the surfers are still a tough bunch; they just punch them in the mouth then drag themselves onto the beach bleeding.
I took in the moon as it glanced at me again. The ocean had a few tales.
I could see Kosio’s cigarettes glowing behind me.
“What’s the verdict?”
“It’s pretty strong here. We’d probably be better off down there a little.” I take out the chocolate and offer a piece. Then I reach for the pouch of tobacco, “Can I roll one?”
A little détente.
We got down to the serious business of fishing. I put a whole shiny-blue-silver WA pilchard on the big hook, which I had attached, with my heaviest sinker, to my green plastic handline, and cast into the middle of the river. It sank to the dark depths. I rapped the line around a rock so if anything decided to attack it it wouldn’t just drag the whole thing with it. I then set my rod up for tailor, or something big and aggressive. Kosio was down river a bit.
“Have you got some bait down there?”
I had the cigarette in the corner of my mouth. The smoke flicked up at my eyes, irritating them. My lungs shrank in protest. I was hoping that the old cancer-stick would quell my tortured stomach that was screaming, “food!”. My whole body was complaining: head, eyes, ears, gut, soul (if there is one). And, I needed to go for a piss.
Pissing’s an art that the rock fisherman spends much time mastering. You have to put your rod down on a nice flattish rock, balancing it so it won’t topple into the sea. Then you balance yourself on two reasonably reliable looking rocks so as not to go arse-over-tit, nor piss on your boots. And at the same time dangle your durry from the corner of your mouth. I don’t know what you do if you are a woman. I suspect you may have to go further a field.
As I relieved myself I carefully looked back towards the handline. The current had dragged the line towards the mouth of the river, It would soon swing in too close to the rocks and I’d have to cast it again. I took a drag of the cigarette and zipped myself up — cursing the fact that I was still smoking tobacco. I decided I better get some pot into me.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught a large, ugly rodent attacking the packet of bait. Rats are a bad omen. It disappeared into the groyne. I treaded more carefully now, conscious of being attacked by the bloodthirsty carnivorous clan that I imagined lived beneath me, ready to pounce. I carefully picked up the bait, trying to act as cool as possible — rats smell fear, I saw it in Watership Down — and chucked it into a relatively more secure position.
The outgoing current was picking up. By the time I reached the handline I found that it swept right into the groyne. I picked it up. As I touched it, a strong jolt pulled my hand slightly forward. There was something on it.
I looked behind me to make sure no sneaky little cunt would attack me at this vulnerable moment. I was catholic and felt something good, like catching a huge fish, was always close to something bad, like being devoured alive.
It was pulling strong, the bare line tore at my bare hands. A glimmer of light twinkled in my eye. Perhaps this was the shark. The moon shone briefly through the clouds. I struggled with the beast as it clung to life. Then the moon vanished. The beast headed straight for the groyne’s underbelly. Only eels do that! Fuck.
The prick sat there. It wouldn’t budge. Every time I touched the line it would only prompt it to crawl deeper into it’s cave. I could hear the rats laughing. I rapped the line around a rock and left the stupid fish to tire out. If the line didn’t break ,we’d have something to eat.
You rarely see eel on a restaurant menu (non-Japanese). And for good reason. I kept fishing.
Kosio clambered over the rocks towards me. He’d left his rod to fend for itself, deciding to concentrate on smoking.
“I got a bloody snag again. Did you get any bites yet?”
I shuddered, “I got a fucking eel.”
“Under the rocks, below the rats.”
The line on my rod tightened. Another eel. They’re one long muscle and their pull is like that of a frantic bullock.
This one didn’t make it to the rocks, I had it too close to the surface. It must have been a young one, too inexperienced to know what a fatal move this could be. As it came closer I saw it, metallic-brownish-black in the darkened water. Twisting viciously, like a zombie getting killed for the second time. It almost screamed.
I looked in its eyes. Again, black. My stomach churned.
“Can’t touch these slimy things!”
I pulled out my knife and cut the line just above the hook. It was gone.
“Why didn’t you keep it?”
“We’ve already got one. And I kinda feel that one is too many.”
I lay the rod down and went to get the other eel. I nudged it carefully towards the surface, rapping the line around the rock as I went so as not to waste my progress.
I stared at the break in the rocks where the line submerged into the water. I soon had his head staring at me. His teeth snarled around the hook that was almost swallowed. He managed one last attempt at freedom, leaping from his hole and towards the river. I freaked out, knocking over the handline in the process. It bounced down into the rocks, unravelling line as it disappeared. I hadn’t lost the slimy, contorting, sad, sea monster though. He twisted, raping the line again and again around his body, until he was mummified in nylon. Not a pretty sight.
“You want to go?” I held the poor thing at arms length, trying not to puke. He swung in the breeze. We gathered the gear and trudged back along the rocks.
“Yeah, I’m getting a bit hungry. Where’s the bait?”
It was nowhere to be seen — a rats dinner.
Evans Head sucks.
At camp, I found my foot-long Victorinox knife/ machete. I dreaded having to touch the thing, so I did it quickly, first slicing its head off — which took some doing between the bloody blunt blade and boot-leather skin. I heard the air being cut from his throat, as though this last breath had been saved for revenge.
I sawed it off and threw it to the ground. Its eyes still stared as the rank, muddy, smell of it wafted to my nostrils. I cut away the line and began skinning it. If that sounds easy, it’s not.
“This fucking thing won’t cut. And my head hurts!”
I stabbed the knife into the sand.
“Do you want a go? I’ll start making some coffee or something.”
I had the gas cooker going and the coffee warming up. By a fence, Kosio was struggling with the headless zombie fish. You had to laugh. Hungry, tired, and you can’t get the fucking skin off a fish which you would prefer that you didn’t have. I went to investigate. I can’t remember exactly what Kosio was doing. He had the thing ingeniously attached to the fence somehow and was yanking at it. Whatever he was doing, it managed to work.
“Jesus, it doesn’t come off that easily.”
I was silent, I picked up tonight’s dinner, “coffee’s ready.”
Now eel is probably alright if you have even the slightest notion of how in hell to prepare it. Neither of us did. I kind of just shoved it into a saucepan with some olive oil, and soy sauce. I knew that the Maoris of New Zealand used to smoke it over those sulfur-spurting geysers. But I was very hungry and we had no geysers.
I watched it bubble in the pan, a desperate man. It was starting to look okay, in a delusional sort of way. Which is probably what people think when they are stranded without food on the top of the Himalayas.
“Hey Sven, you look pretty good today. Would you like to be massaged with soy sauce? Sit a bit closer to the fire. Get nice and toasty.”
“Or how about that lady from Germany?” She’s been complaining all the way, I don’t think anyone would miss her. And she’s got a bit of meat on her.”
My cannibalistic delusions faded as the “meal” was cooked. I slopped some into a bowl, sat on the ground and started picking at it with my fingers. The flesh was surprisingly inoffensive — perhaps a little too drowned in soy sauce, but edible. I chewed twice, then discovered my first bone. I pulled it from the roof of my mouth. I chewed once more and had three or four tiny shafts lodged between my teeth and in a few other places. I felt like crying. The thing was just a mass of misery. I could hardly swallow a mouthful without fear of choking.
Kosio nibbled a little then put his bowl aside, preferring his cigarette and coffee. I struggled on, just lightly chewing then spitting the rest out. I chewed and spat my way through three-quarters of a bowl. I saw the Germans across the way eating at a table. I went to the tea-tree bushes and chucked out the rest.
I pointed towards the Germans, “they don’t know what adventure is. Them and their sausages. ‘Oh please Ingrid, pass some more salami. Have you organised everything for tomorrow?’ Organise, that’s their idea of fun isn’t it. Well we don’t mind eating shitty old eel with soy sauce. Them and their organisation will never know the joy of that will they?”
“Actually I think I would have liked calamari.” Says the Bulgarian.
The day had finally got to me. I just wanted to pass out.
Then I realised that we had decided not to set the tent up. I collapsed to the ground and stared up at the swirling stars and clouds. A strange euphoria passed over me.
Next, morning. I climb out of the tent that I really don’t remember erecting. I start packing, I want to get out of this fucking place. I disturb Kosio as much as possible to hurry him along. I want a nice cafe; something decent to eat.
He manages to rise and stands stretching outside the door as I half push him aside and quickly pack the tent.
Then, with a cigarette in hand, he asks for the coffee-percolator.
I look at him with knives, “you’ve got to be fucking joking!”
“What’s the problem? I just want to have a coffee before we go. Relax.”
I throw the percolator at the ground, “we haven’t eaten anything substantial since yesterday lunch, and you want to fucking sit around and have a cup of coffee. You’re a fucking idiot! And you can go screw yourself you fucking stupid shit. All you do is sit around smoking cigarettes, drinking fucking coffee and complaining about fucking women. And you wonder why no-one likes you.
“Sorry I’m just hungry, grumpy and I’m going to get something to eat in town. You can fuck off.”
I walked off into town and bought myself a pie and a nice-cold, coffee-milk. Normally I’d buy something for Kosio. But today he could go to fucking hell!
Chapter 21 The Rainbow Region
December 14th, 1997
We all have childhood memories that stick with us for the rest of our lives. For Kosio it was his grandmother’s cooking. She used to make these croissant-like things with a piece of melted fetta on them. He loved fetta.
We weren’t talking. My fault for having spat the dummy. But this man was a freak of nature. He had a total disregard for the normal creature comforts, such as food. I on the other hand loved the stuff, needed the stuff, at regular intervals otherwise I was a complete arsehole. The doctors used to think I had diabetes — but then what do doctors know? “Bloody quacks”, my father would say.
Many people have this theory that you have developed a personality by the time that you are seven and that significant life developments happen every seven years.
My first contact with Byron Bay happened when I was fourteen. We’d convinced my father to take us the hour’s drive south of the Gold Coast — to go on holidays. I was always trying to convince my old man to take us on holidays, but he’d never really been that fussed on the idea of going interstate. Apart from shopping in Tweed Heads, but then we had to go there before they started building supermarkets in every suburb on the Coast.
We’d previously got him to go as far as Brunswick Heads — because it was cheaper there — just twenty minutes north of Byron, but I got an ear infection and had the heart of an onion sticking out of my head most of the time, so that didn’t really count. We had visited friends of my mother for the day— my dad didn’t really have friends, he had trouble enough dealing with close family — staying in the luxury of the First Sun Caravan Park right on Byron’s main beach.
Once I got a taste for the place, I had to be there.
The sheltered bay, of crisp white sand, no houses right on the beach, and something besides Gold Coast milk — in the days before all the milk companies joined up and started making regionally non-specific brands without 70s inspired depictions of surfers on the carton.
Gold Coast Milk, with it’s image of a man riding the base of a wave, was my fetta cheese. And in Byron there was a van that made mooing noises which delivered milk to the park every morning. I liked cows.
Byron was paradise, I knew it from the start, so every day after my onion heart came out I’d state my case: can we go to Byron, can we go to Byron, can we go to Byron, can, we, go , to, Byron!
My father was like, “Erin! Can you control your children!”
“John! Go play outside!”
But being chastised only meant, for me, that I was getting closer to a break through — so I doubled my efforts.
When my father was really pissed I’d hide somewhere in earshot and pretend to be God or an angel or something like that. I’d whisper in his direction, just audibly, like I’d imagined God would do it: This is God, go to Byron Bay, I order you too. And stop drinking, it’s bad for you.
My efforts seemed futile, weeks and months went by, and still I was on the boring Gold Coast. But eventually, both of my wishes came true.
The going on the wagon bit took a bit longer than the Byron trip, but God often only works small miracles, and he does it quite randomly — because essentially he is a bastard who wants you to pay for all the crappy things that you do in your life and past lives before he even lifts a finger to something nice for you. Like a stern grandmother who won’t make you peanut brownies until you’ve tidied up your toy soldiers or dolls — the dolls were my sisters by the way, I wasn’t one of these new-age kids with liberal parents. I had a predilection for violence and most of my games involved putting Japanese soldiers in concentration camps, and trying to extract their military secrets. They never talked, I had to respect them for that — but nonetheless I chopped their heads off. That’s the way they would have wanted it for they are a very proud race who’d prefer to die than talk.
The Blue Mazda now passes the giant prawn of Ballina, we stop for fuel.
Anyway, sometime in the spring of my fourteenth year of my life, I was lucky enough to experience the best five-days holidays I’ve ever had without drugs.
Mum and dad packed us into the old green valiant, and we headed south.
There were a few minor hitches though. Firstly my buddy Steven was out surfing all the time — a skill I’d never learnt to master — so I was left in the shallows by myself for the first day. But when I told him the next morning that I’d seen a shark swimming under some surfers by the wreck, just out from the park, the fun on the land began.
He was terrified of sharks, like we all were, and we’d just watched Jaws on the beta player a few weeks earlier, so he knew it wasn’t safe to go into the water.
The shark was actually a dolphin, but it did the trick.
We alternated between playing war games in precarious bunkers dug into the dunes, to borrowing his old man’s binoculars and going down to masturbate where the Swedish girls with huge breasts sunbaked naked. I don’t know if they knew we were there but if they did, they didn’t care — this place was fan-fucking-tastic. And back then being a peeping tom was fine.
My father even got into the action, evidenced by our 8mm home movies. There’d be my little brother and sisters making sand castles, and then there’d be the bare-chested girl, quite artistically framed actually, then back to the kids via a bikini that’s making it’s way up someone else’s bottom.
Steven’s dad was the same — he didn’t have the binoculars for whale watching as he claimed.
If anyone knew about our follies, they didn’t say anything — at least it showed we weren’t gay, so that was okay.
“Sorry Kosio. I just kind of flip out when I don’t eat. And when it’s windy. And when the lids won’t come off the top of the orange juice bottles — I hate that!”
Kosio holds the wheel, gliding the little blue baby into the southern outskirts of my childhood dreams.
“You were a bit of an arsehole.”
I was starting to feel bad. But then again, in every relationship you have to be aware of things like low-blood sugar levels. We can’t all live on coffee, baked beans and cigarettes.
I waited for the customary, “that’s okay I forgive you darling.” But it didn’t happen. I was man enough to apologise, then he doesn’t even give me a response. I look over to him, sternly smoking a fag.
Screw him! I hope he never catches anything more than eels anytime in his entire life. He should be glad that he has a friend like me. What an ungrateful bastard. Forget about it.
“I think you’ll like Byron Bay. Lots of hippies. Maybe we should stay there a while, I’m sick of travelling.”
“Yeah, lets just chill out, all this driving stresses me out.”
And then the sign: you are entering Byron Shire. A cool rush pumped through my veins, the decaying rainforest entered my lungs. And then we were there, in the main street. T-shirts, boobs and surfboards.
The backpackers, on the edge of town, is packed. It is hot, very hot and humid. I can’t wait to get out of our oven on wheels.
“So is Petra a lesbian?” I ask.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Did you sleep with her?”
“I thought you hated these feminist types.” I say, still trying to establish who Kosio thought were feminists.
“She’s not really a feminist. Who cares anyway, it’s just sex.”
“She doesn’t say much does she?”
“No, not really.” He pauses for a moment, “I don’t know if I really like her that much.”
We arrive at the check-in station and I look around in amazement. The place is teaming with foreigners, fences, paths and the worst sort of kitschy arty stuff you can imagine — obviously the product of some accountant students who think that just because they’re on holidays they have a right to weld together a few bits of iron in between didgeridoo lessons. Maybe they did have such rights, but if I was president, I’d certainly revoke them quick smart — send them back to where they came from ASAP.
I’d lived here a few years earlier, when this place was just a run-down campsite — it now looked like a hippy Club Med.
“Hi!” says the friendly girl behind the counter in an American accent.
“Hi!” I say, sarcastically, “we would like a tent site.”
“Okay, we’ll need some form of identification from both of you.” Her voice was so bubbly, so grating, so fucking happy.
We hand over passports and licences and go through all the questioning and formalities. Where have you come from? How long are you staying? We’ll need a $10 deposit for the tent peg. Toilets and showers are through there, there’s a super (she didn’t say that but she might as well have) BBQ on Tuesday nights, and there’s a talent quest tonight! You should enter.
Kosio gives his normal list of false names, addresses and stories. Old habits die hard, and in the back of his mind I could see he was convinced that the KGB might have access to this backpackers information.
This was not the Byron Bay I knew. Too organised, too friendly, too many questions. It didn’t even really feel Australian anymore.
You used to just walk into this place and pitch a tent by the mosquito infested swamp and a few days later you’d bump into the owner and he’d be come up and tell you a story from the 70s for half an hour then realise that he hadn’t seen you here before and that he probably hadn’t gotten any money from you so he’d hit you up for $5 every now and again from that point. And half the people were on the dole of course — in the days before lay-a-bouts began to be seriously persecuted by the like of Johnny Howard.
Now they knew who was here, and where they were from, and they charged $12 a night!
What can you do? Things change. Places become famous for being layed-back then someone comes and cashes in on it by building tee-pees and huts and whacking a few statues here and there and then the place becomes just like any other tourist town.
“Can we have fires here?” asks Kosio.
“I’m afraid not. Too dangerous. But we have a fire at the BBQ on Tuesday nights.”
Kosio whispers in my ear, “I don’t like this place.”
I just shrug my shoulders, and wipe the sweat from my brow.
“Maybe we should find some place out in the bush to camp for free.” He continues.
“Let’s just make the most of it man. I don’t want to live out in the fucking bush all the time. I want some surf and some people around.” I watch a few well-built American looking types walking past looking cool. “Even if they are a bunch of dorks.”
“We’ve got organised tour to Nimbin every morning at 9 a.m. as well.” Continues the American.
I’m all hot and sticky and some yank is trying to treat me like a tourist in my own country. An organised tour to Nimbin for Christ’s sake — that is some sort of sick anomaly!
Though the whole “rainbow region” — the north-east corner of New South Wales, stretching somewhere around Byron, out to Mullumbimby and Nimbin — is going to the dogs now. Nimbin now has a bloody ice-cream shop with a flashy sign, and the old museum, that used to contain just a few old coke bottles and bits of metal that people had collected in the paddocks when they were digging holes for their dope plants, has been organised into some sort of crappy infotainment thing.
Breath in, breath out.
We manage to find a spot to pitch our tent, and as soon as it’s up I have to collapse. I’m a delicate flower when it comes to the heat nowadays. I light up a spliff and retreat into my head for an hour.
Sweat pouring from my brow I look up into the trees haloed by the sun. Backpackers cruise in and out of tents collecting bits and pieces, wearing beads. The sound of drums comes to my ear — a basic rhythm, quite crap actually. Kosio has found a hammock nearby, his hairy legs showing as he smokes a cigarette beneath his wide-brimmed hat. My t-shirt is sticky to me, suffocating me, I have to pull it off, but as I pull it becomes tighter and I begin suffocating and struggling for dear life.
“Ahh get this thing off of me.” Eventually it budges and my lily-white breast with pink nipples and scrawny, but rather muscular and lean, arms are revealed. I blink the blink the people do after being abducted by aliens and finding themselves in a field, half-naked.
“I got to go for a fucking swim. Where’s the fucking pool.” I rise and stagger past Kosio.
“You want come to water? Nice, fresh water.” I pause for a moment and notice he has a cup of coffee in one hand. “Where’d ya get that?”
“From the cafe.”
“They have a cafe here? Holy Christ, what have they done to this place?”
I have to stop speaking, have to get to water, I walk through the maze of tents and ropes, eventually finding some path. I look back.
“Are you coming or what?”
I wanted to swim but I felt I needed the company of another quirky body so as to feel less exposed to the foreigner’s stares.
“Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Fuck! I forgot a towel.”
I make my way back through the tents again. There’s nothing worse than getting out of a pool and not being able to dry yourself off immediately. Getting in the pool is refreshing, getting out is only refreshing if you have a towel.
I put my little toe into the water — the toe I once nearly cut off on an oyster when I was seven, there’s that number seven again — and test its temperature, then walk down the steps and plunge my head under. Underwater, that’s wear I always want to live. Underwater in a warm pool, with no sharks or stingrays. I want gills basically.
I emerge, free from sweat, peering at Corinne on the telephone in the nearby foyer type thing, she doesn’t see me, so I go back under and listen to the world through muffled ears, releasing a bubble, then another, eventually sinking to the bottom. I see Kosio’s body, head over the water, doing some strange Bulgarian stroke, a cross between dog paddle and breaths stroke, I kick up slowly to meet him.
“You should put your head under you dildo.”
“I’m fine up here thanks.”
“But it’s funner under water.”
I look over to Corinne again, she doesn’t look happy. Our eyes meet, she doesn’t smile. She hangs up the phone.
Boyfriend no doubt.
Boyfriends are always a problem. Couples in general. I’m a kind of single type person. I let too many things go, can’t help being honest, and rarely fill a woman’s bed with roses — well, actually never.
My first girlfriend; I did a lot for her. It was the old virgin love thing. We’re girlfriend and boyfriend now so we should do it like they do it in the soapies. Brush my hair, shave the bum-fluff off and put on some terribly cheap cologne that I’d bought my dad for Christmas. Or, if I was passing a Myer’s store on a way to meet her, I’d put on the expensive stuff at the sample counter, or just spray it on something that I was planning to wear when I saw her next. And I’d bring all the flowers and have a picture of her and say all the romantic lines that they said in the movies before jumping into bed, or kissing at the top of the Eifell tower — and really mean it!
Breaking up, and the accompanying tears put an end to all that. Pot played its part as well.
Corinne and I had discussed first love. We’d decided that after the first one, you didn’t really do it again.
Then again I had the feeling that we weren’t seeing the forest for the trees.
I’d also discussed it with a Romanian actress in France, at a place called le bois planté (the planted forest I think), she said she always used fall in love, but then she didn’t really do it anymore. Which probably helps when you’re married.
Maybe, after the first hurt, we, or I if I don’t want to talk for all of humanity, just don’t want to admit when we are in love.
Like Bill Clinton and his dope smoking. The first time was great, it’s always great, but then you have to be careful to admit it again — could be damaging.
Sex is fine. That often only involves body parts and the soul (or whatever) is left out of it. But love, love leaves you open.
Tell your partner you had sex with someone else and they’re angry. Tell them you’re in love with someone else, then you hurt them.
I go over to Corinne, purchasing a coffee on the way.
“I was just talking to my boyfriend…”
Intuition, woman don’t think we have it — but we aren’t always as stupid as the media makes us out to be. We often even know about PMT nowadays. I think I suffer from something similar but I attribute it to moon cycles and mild schizophrenia.
“So what did he say?”
“He says he’s going to be on his motorcycle when I get back, driving around somewhere. He doesn’t want to see me”
“Yes! His motorcycle. He did this when I came back from Egypt.” She still isn’t smiling.
“What did you do in Egypt?”
“I slept with this Arab man.”
“What?!” Now I was on the other end of the boot. That hurt. Especially an Arab. I know it’s racist but with their attitude towards women…well it’s worse than…Australians. Oh god, I knew what the boyfriend was feeling, pissed off by some guy he’s never going to see, a good-for-nothing Aussie at that.
“It was nothing. I never slept with anyone besides my boyfriend — and now you — I was curious.”
“But with an Arab.”
“You have no right to be jealous! Who are you anyway?”
“I’m no one obviously.”
“Ay yie, yie.” She puts her hand to her head.
“So did you tell him about us?”
“No, of course not stupid. I don’t want him to know about you.”
“But he’s getting on his motorbike anyway.”
“Well I don’t know. He knows somehow.”
I sip my coffee, not bad actually, I think I could grow to like this place — have to sell more pot though, with this bloody inflationary prices and all. I look at Corinne like a little puppy with its heart on its paw.
“What am I doing with you?” She asks.
“You love me.”
“I don’t love you at all.”
I look over to Kosio, he’s opted for the spa, his hairs even a little bit wet now. His daggy pants fill with bubbles and sit just below the surface, grooving along to their own beat.
I turn back with my bottom lip protruding.
“Do you want a coffee?”
“Yes, and some chocolate. They have this nice chocolate here, that one with the cow.” She puts her head on my shoulder. “You are such an idiot. This was meant to be a trip to see Australia. Now it is a John holiday.”
“If I was your boyfriend, I wouldn’t let you go on holidays alone.”
“Well you will never be my boyfriend, so shut up. And get me my chocolate.”
I loved doing little chores, getting chocolate, oral sex, it made me seem useful. I had some purpose in life.
“One bar of chocolate please, the European stuff.”
“Maybe we should turn professional with this bumming around business, buy a van — or a big bus and go search for treasure or something.”
Corinne had gone into town by herself, she needed to be alone for some reason.
“Actually let’s get pissed.” Kosio continued.
“You know what I was thinking. I think we should get some mushrooms.”
“Yeah, some mushrooms, some brandy, we’ll take that canoe out into the pond, get pissed — have some fun.”
The pond was more of a swamp than a pond, rather green and surrounded by tea-trees, sand and mosquitos. I’d spent much time on it a few years back, when I had so much more energy than I did right now.
My birthday was in two days, I was feeling old. The later part of my twenty’s was upon me.
Minutes later we were in the scrub beyond the borders of the backpacker’s.
“I don’t think I’ll have any of these mushrooms.”
“I might just get some brandy or cognac or something.”
My boots were getting wet, water everywhere. I look around for piles of cow pats, searching for gold tops. I’d never actually picked any myself, I was always too scared of being shot by some farmer and I’d just hide in the forest and my friends would bring me back some.
In the trees I meet a man. A tall man with a wispy reddish-blonde beard.
“Hello!” He says in a thick German accent. “Out for a walk?”
“Yeah, I was looking for some mushrooms.”
“Well, I might have what you are looking for I believe.” He holds out a handful of gold tops. Nice fresh ones at that. Creamy white bells and orange-gold tips, just like firm nipples. I break the stems of a few, they turn blue.
“Yep they’re the right ones…hang on.” I pick out a few dodgy looking grey ones and throw them over my shoulder. “These might be alright, but I wouldn’t trust them.”
“Hey watch it!” Yells Kosio coming up the rear.
“Sorry, didn’t see you there.”
“Oh, you got some.”
“Not me. My friendly friend here.”
“Do you know how much of these I should eat?” Asks Simon.
Normally I’d say the whole lot, but that would mean I’d have to go find some for myself. And considering that I’d never actually ever found any myself, and that he had a big handful enough to probably kill a person, I thought I’d advise caution.
“Ever had them before?”
“Yes, in Germany. But they are different. I haven’t seen these types, I had to look them up in a book.”
“Deine Pilze buch ha?”
“Very good. You know German?”
“Not much more than can I have a cup of coffee and where are the mushrooms.”
“Enough to survive?”
“Yes.” I pause for a moment. I liked this guys energy. People were big on energy in Byron. “I think if you took three or four of these you’d be okay.”
“Great, would you two care to join me?”
“No worries, I hate walking around these wet bloody fields.”
“Your boots aren’t very good for this I think.”
“That’s true. We are planning a canoe trip tonight.” I say.
“Yeah, get some alcohol…” Kosio went through his brandy spiel again, but we’d already sold Simon with the canoe bit. But if Corinne and Petra wanted to come along we’d probably need some more transport.
This was Byron Bay: meeting people taking drugs and forgetting your an adult.
Being grown up is over rated anyway.
Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.
The mushrooms go brown in the water. A little honey, some herbal tea from town. The steam smells kind of dusty, kind of dark.
“Well, cheers big ears.” I say, chinking my mug against Simon’s.
Kosio has a brandy, we chink against his mug anyway.
“Mmmm.” Says Simon, “it tastes a bit like sweet mud.”
“Pretty much tastes like shit, I think.”
“Yes, perhaps shit.” He is quite a polite German fella, this Simon, reminds me of old K in Melbourne. He has a kind of literary quality, indicative of a good education.
“I hope you guys don’t go mad on that stuff.” Says Kosio.
I finish my mug in one foul swoop, and start licking the wet nipples of the bell.
“Oh baby, I like those tips.”
A few skimpily clad girls walk past. It is sunset, let the fun begin.
The sky begins to ripple as my head rocks slowly from one side to the other.
“Isn’t the sky pretty Simon?”
“Yes, it is all…twinkly”
“Where are you guys?” asks Kosio.
“We’re on a small planet on the edge of the milky way, a few light years away from nothing in particular. Spinning around. Listening to the birds and the trees and the flowers.”
“So it must be working then.” Says Kosio.
“Working is such a strong word.” Says Simon.
Kosio cracks up.
“You’re fucking hilarious you know,” I say to Kosio, “you’re this fucking refugee, comes to Australia, and you say all these strange things all the time.” I pause, “You know what?”
“We should get married.”
Brandy comes through Kosio’s nose.
“Give me a drink you East European! You can’t handle the stuff.” I take his mug as he begins to choke, and take a swig.
“Let’s all get married! What do you reckon Simon?”
“Is that legal in this country.”
“We don’t really have any laws in this country my friend. We thought it would just be too difficult.” I take a toke of a spliff and pass it on to Simon, then wack Kosio on the back, to help him breathe again.
“Okay! Let’s do it. But where to find a priest these days.”
I swallow some more brandy, it’s a French/Australian blend, not too bad actually, “you don’t need a priest nowadays. We’ll just get the swamp fairies to do it.”
Kosio spurts more brandy through his nostrils. “Stop, I’m going to choke to death soon.”
“Kosio, in Australia, we put our alcohol in our stomach. Didn’t they tell you when you arrived.”
Kosio composes himself, “they didn’t tell me anything.”
Corinne and Petra come down the path and to the tent where we three sit, cross-legged, under a tree. I quickly try and gather my facilities together, then think, hey, we’ll just say we are drunk.
“care for a drink?” I ask.
Corinne looks at me suspiciously, I bite my lip trying not to laugh.
“What are you smiling about?” She asks.
“Nothing.” I can’t open my mouth too long I have to get back to biting.
“Hey girls, relax!” Says Kosio, “have a drink!”
“Hello, I am Simon, from Germany, if you were about to ask. And you are.”
“This is Corinne and Petra. From Sweden.”
Corinne bites at that one, “Switzerland, actually.”
“Yeah, I was pretty close though.”
I was getting some pretty heavy vibes from Corinne. I had this habit of being attracted to pretty full on temperamental types. For some reason the more they hassled me, the more I loved them.
Corinne couldn’t understand the use of the word pretty. Especially when I’d said pretty ugly. It was just too perplexing…
Her face glows blue, I smile at her.
“I’ve got a headache I am going to sleep.” She says.
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow” I say.
“See me tonight.” She looks into my eye. Looks pretty serious.
“Cool. I’ll just go out into the canoe a bit first”.
Corinne wanders through the palm trees and tents; the sound of African drumming starting again. Why can’t these people learn to play some rhythm?
“So is this your better half?” Asks Simon, with the appearance of a man who can see directly through you, as if invisible.
“I think she’s someone else’s better half. My better quarter.”
“Love Parade all over again.” Simon says.
“Have you been to the Love Parade in Berlin last year?”
Simon and I both jump with the realisation that we are still sitting near two other people. I recognise Kosio. Funny old Kosio, the wild pig of the Bulgarian mountains, the little Gligana. Petra takes a moment or two to come to me, her image obviously isn’t stored in many brain cells as Gligana’s.
“Yes.” Says Simon, as I realise that the question must have been for him. He’s German! Exactly. That’s how she knew to ask him. Where’s that canoe I wonder?
Weren’t we going somewhere?
We’re still here.
“I saw you there.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I remember this beard that you plated.”
I look over to Simon, almost head butting him, due to inadequate judgment of the time-space continuum — mainly the space bit. I look at his beard. It is very nicely platted. I hadn’t really noticed how nice it was platted without my glasses.
Did we have dinner? I wonder if we had dinner. I hate trying to prepare food when I’m tripping. You forget about it, then things burn…
Kosio starts talking a little bit like the teacher in that Charlie Brown Peanuts crap thing that they used to have on the telly. Waaa, waa, waa, waaa, waa, waa, waa…
“I hate Charlie Brown!” I say. “And it is dark and we should get in the canoe. What do you think Petra. I pass her another joint as she sips on a brandy.
“Okay, a few drinks in a canoe might be nice.”
“That’s the spirit! We’ll have a little Berlin Love Parade on the swamp.”
Petra was turning out to be kinda cool. Her rigour mortis posture was starting to relax, I could see the tension just easying up around her. You know when you see a stiff neck you know that the persons tense.
I feel my own neck and realise I’m just as bad. That’s one of my problems actually, I’m mostly stiff as a dead wombat by the side of the summer bitumen, but I’m always joking around, or fishing, or taking drugs or something, so people just think I’m some happy-go-lucky hippy…Hey, Kosio’s up, and Petra’s moving, I look over to Simon, he’s getting up too, we must be going somewhere. I hope it’s exciting. I get up and follow.
“Eeeek!” A terrified blonde backpacker jumps into me, as I watch a red-bellied black snake slither into the bushes.
“I almost stepped on this snake.”
“What do you mean cool, it’s not cool at all.”
“No, I meant that they have a cool colour. I’m glad you didn’t step on it, it might have bitten.”
“Oh-oh, that’s Simon…I better go.” I walk off after the pack.
I don’t need the stress of some hysterical backpacker right now.
Chapter 22: A Night With a Canoe.
The canoe rocks back and forth precariously. The straight bastards had locked the thing up and the office was closed so we had to smash the lock off and sneak out into the water.
Bastards can’t get us out here! This is anarchy, fucking aye!
The alcohol flowed freely, as did my mind.
“We were in this bar in Moscow,” says Kosio, “the Inter-Continental Hotel, and we were having this vodka and singing and there were these American marines, security guards at their embassy. These were big guys! Anyway we were just kids having fun and one of these marines asked us to be quiet so a friend of mine punched him in the face. And then he started this fight and we had to hit them with these chairs. In a few seconds the place turned into a battlefield. Oh, we beat the shit out of them. It caused quite a bit of controversy, because the Russian and American still didn’t really like each other, and my friend who started it felt bad, so he went to the marine’s barracks to apologise for beating them up and they ganged up on him! Oh, he had blood everywhere.”
“Wow.” I say, having heard this story a few time before. “So Petra,” I continue, “we don’t know much about you.”
“Me?” Says Petra.
“Yeah, what do you do in Switzerland?”
“I’m an accountant.”
Simon is looking up at the stars smiling.
“A gay accountant? How does that go down there?”
“How do you know I am gay?”
“Kosio told me.”
“It’s alright,” says Kosio, “we know lots of gay people. It’s all love, who cares?” He was getting drunk. So was Petra.
“Have you ever had mushrooms?”
I pull out an old water bottle, quarter filled with mushie tea. “Help yourself if you want.”
“Are you giving away our magical pixie drink?” Says Simon.
“Mushrooms are free, who cares?”
“You have a good way of seeing things, Mr John, and, in the spirit of freedom, I also offer you some mystical juice from our humble cup.” His English was better than mine. Mental note: watch out for the Germans, they know too much.
Petra smiles, “you boys!”
“We are really lovely boys, who have your best interests at heart.”
“Okay, I might have a little.”
Accountancy and mushrooms both go well together in my books.
FLASHBACK 1993 SAME POND.
Jan Weinart, the East German crime writer, sits in the canoe with myself and some guy from Britain. He has long brown hair, large eyes and a pronounced nose. He wears loosely fitting, Gipsy style trousers and a long sleeved shirt. He rolls a cigarette and we drink port.
“When I was your age I would have just jumped into this pond.” He licks the gum on the paper.
“So do you like any of the writers in Australia?” Asks the British guy.
Jan lights his cigarette. “This guy here.”
I’ve always relied on the kindness of Germans.
I smoke a cigarette. I’ve had too many tonight, my throat is horse.
“In a few years, perhaps.”
I smile the shy smile of a 21 year old. I write sad crap in a scrapbook. That’s not writing. Besides, I want to live, not write.
I take my clothes off.
I stand precariously in the canoe, naked, Kosio and Petra are talking, Simon looks up as I jump. The canoe rocks, everyone reaches for the sides to try and steady it, I fall under, into the darkness.
I open my eyes and look around, the lights of the main building, come through the murkiness, I see green.
A mullet goes past my eyes, I scream, it darts away.
I float to the surface and get some air.
They all look at me. I look back at them.
“What?” I say.
Kosio is laughing. “I tell you, if you drown, I’m not coming in the water to get you.”
Petra is now looking a little perplexed.
“I don’t know how all these mullet live in this pond.” I reach for the side of the canoe.
“Hey, you’ll tips us over man!” Says Kosio.
“I have a plan,” says Simon, “we will row to the other side and then you can get in.”
Petra is still looking at me, as the boys row in circles trying to get some direction. I had my direction now, I was going to be a writer, just as Jan said. Screw the world, I’ll create my own.
We reached land, not exactly in the spot where the rowers had intended, but it did the trick and I was able to get back in, without major dramas, and put my clothes back on.
“Actually, I might get out now.” Says Kosio, “I’m too drunk to trust in a boat, and you’re too trippy and I have this fear that you can’t be trusted either.”
“Okay, hasta manana” I say.
Kosio staggers off to the tent.
“We must go into the forest. It is essential for our spirit quest.” I say, really meaning it.
Petra is now looking quite sick, we’ll have to make sure we don’t loose her somewhere, it could be embarrassing…
In the forest, we have abandoned the canoe. I here there are centipededs in these parts, giant centipedes. Something brushes on my shoulder, I jump back and take defence. The bastards aren’t going to get me yet, I’m now a writer, nothing’s going to eat me. Talk has gone away, there are only trees. Petra is looking at the leaves, I touch her on the hand, she’s a good sort. Simon has things stuck in his hair, he obviously wants to be inconspicuous, good thinking, these Germans have a steady head, even in the most dangerous of situations.
Society is a crock of shit, only the people in the people in the forest can save us now, it’s doomed, doomed I tell you.
I manage to roll a cigarette, luckily I didn’t bring it with me when I visited the mullets. Otherwise it would have been wet.
You know what happens with thought, do you know how it works? The brain has all these different parts filled with ideas. It’s like electricity, you switch a switch and a thought comes. But it’s automatic, you come in contact with something and a light comes on.
“The forest is nice. We need to roll a joint.”
We’ve lost the gay accountant, she is here in body, but her mind is in the pond.
“Yes, a joint!” Says Simon.
“Do you have any pot?”
“I think I do.”
He produces a rather large bag of weed and we get to work.
Everything goes silent, I focus on my rolling, I focus on the moment…
We walk through the tent’s, tripping over ropes and cords as we go. It is early morning, the sun looks like it’s coming out soon.
Petra’s down by Corinne, and then there were two. Life is beautiful.
There’s a bat. Simon and I sit outside his tent, smoking another spliff. The smoke swirls in the light of the moon, going up to the stars.
Another mission: the last for the night. We need the sunrise.
Somehow we are in the country, in a jungle, the mission is not going according to plan, we find civilisation stop at the swings, can’t roll anything now Simon, the sun is waiting. Did you remember a towel, yes I did.
Walking on the train tracks down to Belongil Beach. The tracks go on and on, the sky is turning blue.
In the sand, we lay out the towels and get naked. Must talk to the dolphins, they know something we do not. The water is beautiful.
“What are you going to do with your life Simon? You seem like an intelligent fellow.”
“I’m doing something with it right now, in the water…”
The day has started, the first of the dogs with their people close behind, walk along the beach as our penises, shrivelled from the salty water, hang in the breeze.
We put on our sunglasses.
Time for coffee and crepes…
Chapter 23 The Talk
The world comes back to trees still there. Backpackers enjoy our country. Play volleyball with gay abandonment. I smoke Indian hash with Israeli’s, must rest before I die.
I wave to Corinne, she has to say IT, I can see IT in her eyes.
She summons. Over to tent. A wave of her hand. I go. Knowing that I went with the crepes and coffee.
“Hey, what’s up?”
She stands like Benito Mussolini, short with here head back, chest thrust forward.
“I am late with my…how do you say…bleeding.”
“I have never been late ever since I was a teenager.”
She starts packing her little day pack. She just grabs my arm and leads me to town.
“I tell you if there is something, and it has to be get rid of, you are paying for half!”
Along the bitumen, it is starting to heat up. Weather for roasting ducks.
“Oh my god oh my god oh my god.”
“I thought you wanted children.”
“Not with you.”
“What’s wrong with me?” What’s the big deal? Once they’re about eight they can start making their own sandwiches and when you’re old and bored you can visit them on a Sunday arvo. Nothin to it.
But, I am into pot, and kids like chocolate ice cream. Something has to melt.
Corinne keeps mumbling in Swiss German, I’m in so much trouble. A lot more if she is pregnant.
We come to the Byron’s main street.
“What if there were holes in these things?!” She exclaims.
“Well, I didn’t check.”
“You didn’t check, so you don’t know.”
“I just assumed.” Assumption is the mother of all fuck ups.
Her face turns red, she might be about to kill me. She’s got that kind of kill look.
“I don’t even know where I am.”
“It’s over here.”She goes into the doctors alone, then pisses (I assume) and storms back past me, “come on, we have to come back later.”
Outside the door, she stops, “I’m hungry.”
“Want to get some ice-cream?” I say.
The day still has a mushroom haze. I think when my pop told me to steer clear of drugs and discos, he might have meant stuff like ecstasy, and heroin.
I get a mango, Corinne gets chocolate, we are already drifting apart.
Down by the dune, where Simon and I watched zie sun rise earlier.
Corinne rests beside me on her towel. She doesn’t look a day over the age of any model on the front of any Vogue.
What a small world, spinning around in outer space.
Another child in this world, we’re just kids ourselves most of the time.
Strange planet, strange bits of fruit.
“We should get married Corinne.”
She sits up. Disturbed from her absorption of the sun, “what?”.
“We should get married.”
“We can’t, okay.”
She raises her head onto her hands, and looks up at me, “put some of this sun milk on my back please.” She lays down to enjoy the pleasure of my hands going up and down her spine. Or so I would imagine.
“What would I do here if I was married to you?”
“Well you are an architect aren’t you? They build house here.”
“I did noticed but see we build them differently for snow and cold not all this sun.”
We sees zie dolphins diving in and out of summer loving.
Humans problems, they just cruise on by laughing their dolphin laughs – malevolent creatures.
I look out to the ocean, it seems to have a limit of water in the universe.
The little kid is riding the heart of the bay.
Seen one human, seen them all…
Further out to sea seagulls flock and swoop and dive. Might be the mackerel at it again, chomping away on the little pilchards, biting them in half, separating their heads from the tails. Bull sharks swimming amongst it to grab the left-overs.
Isn’t nature lovely?
Chapter 24: gerburtstag part 1
I am to be 25 years tomorrow. Twenty-five years here, and I’m still here, smoking pot, drinking coffee, and now, falling in and out of love.
I could just have become a monk, go hang out in a centre in Rangoon and write a funny book about it. Spend a bit more time avoiding the mundane reality.
But no, there I go, falling for another Swiss girl.
Just like Petra in Hervey Bay.
Ah, what a beautiful woman, what a neck, and short dark hair, and full sunshining face. We had gone to the house of bottles together and I’d watched her slide down the bottle house slide, which was inside, but you could see for all the walls were glass.
I didn’t go in. Didn’t have any money, and I saw it for what it was: a big stack of bottles.
I mean it isn’t the Mona Lisa or anything.
Perhaps I’m just a bit too negative. Think the world sucks for no good reason.
There must be some nice things in the world.
Well there is, there’s love. Just like that love I had for that woman Elina, in France. With her leather jacket and big smile…Oh God, let’s face it, I fall in love at the drop of a hat.
I’m a damn schizophrenic! Nearly twenty-five and I’m a damn schizophrenic with no skills or qualifications besides being able to catch and cook aquatic creatures.
I walk around thinking the whole world might as well be made of bottles then at the first sign of a pretty European, I’m ga-ga.
I wish I lived in a place where I could just become an artist. Like in Spain in the 1920s. These 90s were starting to give me the shits.
I just want to fish, and get some money from somewhere. And I don’t mind kids, nor the responsibility of them. I could get fish for them actually, yeah have a huge dam with native cod in it…
“Where do you get your money from to travel around like this?” Asks Corinne.
Oh, no, now the questions which have no real answers. I guess its time to own up to everything.
“Oh, just a job I had in Melbourne.”
“What sort of job?”
Better lie actually.
“I edited part of a book once.”
“Part of a book?”
“Yes. A travel guide to Ireland.”
Don’t have to say that it was just for my work experience.
“Why are you doing this writing course anyway? What sort of job can you get with such a course.”
“I don’t know. All I know is I used to work for a bank, and now I don’t, so I’m a writer.
The State Bank of Victoria. A waste of a perfectly good 8 months.
The waiter brings the smoothie and caffe latte, and small pizza. The waiters took you by surprise in Byron. You order something, sit down and have a chat, and you chat and chat and chat and then realise that you’ve been chatting for ages and you get up to leave, then this stuff arrives and you jump back to the distant past to recollect what it was you asked the stupid hippy to bring you.
You do get it in Melbourne, but there they do it on purpose. You don’t have to wait for things in Byron, but if you can find something else to do, let me know.
Corinne sips smoothie.
“I will kill you.”
I drain the smoothie in one long suck. For a moment I become aware of Byron Bay. Really aware of it, the people the crystal shops. The icey rush to my brain.
On the road again, back to quack. Sit again, and rest, for the jury have something interesting to say about this case. They Emerge.
She looks at me and I at her.
“There’s nothing,” she says.
“So what happened?”
“It just did not come. He just says, sometimes this happens.”
“Let’s go have a spa.”
We’re off the hook. Kids might bring a lot of joy, but we’re sure as hell happier without them.
Days have their ebbs and flows.
We walk down the street again. The street of endless process. Walking up and down. Like a Nauseous Jean Paul Sartre novel. A sickness; or a past time.
A olive hand grabs my arm, “Johnno!”. I turn to see the bouncy, excited puppy dog like, figure of Christophe, and his girfriend Tanya. He starts to hug me. I hate it when guys do that.
“You finally got out of Melbourne! Thank Christ Almighty!” he says. “That place sucked dog’s dicks.”
“Yeah, I’ve been here a few days.” Let go of me…
Corinne doesn’t know what, or if, to make of my lanky friend in full hippy attire.
“And you didn’t call me. Don’t you love me any more?”
“Hi Tanya.” I hug her. I don’t like hugs at all.
“How have you been?” She asks, “Did you hear that Cathca had kittens, but they died in the car on the way up.”
Cathca was their little cat who they had living with them in Melbourne. Chris had obsessively tried to guard its virginity from Brunswick’s Toms, but cats will be cats and she snuck off to party.
Chris was furious with her.
“This is my friend Corinne. Corinne this is my school friend from the Gold Coast, Christophe, and this is Tanya.”
“Hello.” Says Corinne.
“Hello.” Says Tanya.
“Corinne? That’s a French name. My dad is French. Parlez vous Francais?” Asks Christophe.
“No she is from Switzerland. And you’re going to fast.” I turn to Corinne for approval, luckily Tanya starts asking her questions, so I can try and subdue my hyperactive friend. We sit down on the lawn in front of the health food shop.
“So how have you been anyway?”
Chris can only sit for a second and then he’s bouncing in the air waving his arms about. “Oh man, fantastic! I’m on this water purification technique where I drink four litres of water every morning, as soon as I wake up. I’ve got it sitting beside my bed. Hey Man! Luka’s just had some friends get back from Zimbabwe and they’re having a gig up in the hills man! Oh, you got to hear this man, they’re fucking great!… Man.”
One of the most intense people I have ever met, is this man.
“Yeah, we’ll go.”
“Where are you staying man?”
“That place by the swamp.”
“Oh, you got to come up and stay at our joint. We got this place up in the hills now. Byron’s too intense man, all the locals head for the hills during summer, I only came in to get some tofu man, then I’m out of here.”
“We’ll see sounds good.”
“Oh, it’s good to see you bro. I’m so glad I got out of that city. It rooted pigs.”
“It’s all right if you’re doing stuff. You know, not locked up in a house all day doing what you were doing.” I avoid the overt mentioning of Chris’s continuous eight month bong smoking stint in Melbourne for Corinne’s sake. She didn’t really understand that sort of thing.
“No man! I’ve given up smoking. Haven’t had any gunja for three months.”
“After the doctor told you you had the first stages of malnutrition.” Says Tanya.
“Well, you know how was I meant to know that donuts don’t contain any nutritional value. There’s no labels on them or anything.”
I can see Corinne is restless. I know I am.
“Hey man, stay in town a bit and come by the tent-site for a cuppa.”
“Oh man, you got to get outta that place, that place sucks dog’s dicks…”
“Okay, shut up and just come and pick us up and take us to the hippies alright.”
“Hey chill bro, you’re not in the city now…”
“Okay, we’ve had a long day, we just need to go chill out.”
“Are you coming too Corinne?” Chris whacks on a French accent, “I can make this beautiful bush breakfast, some crepe, and cafe, oh it’s so delicious…”
“Come on,” says Tanya, “Let’s leave them be. We’ll see you later Corinne, good to meet you, sorry about Christophe, he’s deranged.”
“Me deranged, you’re the one who told them about the kittens.”
“He didn’t know.”
“You could have let them a down a bit more gently than that…Just blurting it out like that. Jesus.”
“I’m not arguing.” She walks into the health food shop.
“She doesn’t want to argue… blah,blah,blah.”
“We’ll see you a bit later.”
“Sure baby, it’s going to be hot I tell you! I love the Zimbabwean tunes man. Hit me with that rhythm man…”
We walk off. It’s the only way you can get away from Chris.
“Bye!” I say.
Halfway back to the backpakers Corinne ambushes me.
“I like your friend.”
Where do people get off liking my friend? They don’t even know him. I know him and I don’t even like him. If I wasn’t his best friend things would be different.
“He was like my best friend at school. So that’s it.”
“So now I am meeting high school friends. What would be next, Christmas with your parents?” She looked at me with her puppy-dog eyes.
“That’d be weird wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, it would be weird, it is getting weirder every day. I should just leave you.” Her weirds would always veer into ‘veirds’, it is a beautiful language, she was beutiful.
“I love you though.”
“You just say that.”
“No, no I mean it.”
“Please come, you’ll really enjoy it out there.”
She looks deep into my eyes.
“I didn’t want this attachment. I left Switzerland because of it.” She grabs my cheeks and squeezes them till they sting, “I like to hurt you, you know. You don’t have enough responsibility. You are nothing to me.”
She’s just saying that, I know. Women are always saying things like that, as a man you have to kind of filter it all out. I know I’m not nothing to her, and I can see that she really does like to pull my heart out and show it to me beating. But I love that in a woman.
She turns and keeps walking, “you will suffer. I will make sure of it.”
I’m sure she will as well.
Kosio’s back at base camp, he’s constructing some sort of hut from leaves and things, somewhere where he can have his coffee in peace. I fill him in and apologise for my absence. We go and have another spa and I sneak off for another spliff with these Israeli guys I met at breakfast — they can’t smoke in the army so they all come over here and get themselves wasted as they rave on about how bad the Arabs are, and I like telling them about my other school friend Billy and his mum’s fantastic felafel, but I also add that there are terrible Arabs who take advantage of innocent Swiss girls.
And I forget what it is that I’m doing and who I’m with and why I’m with them. Goddamn Israelites, they smoke some strong fucking shit, makes you want to Passover. Then I get the story together and act like I knew it all along. The tents are packed the pegs are shoved back into the face of the Yankee girl at reception and I tell her that we will unfortunately miss the BBQ, but that we all agree that this is the best damn swamp in these parts and that someone should be commended for the art that brightened up the place and after a while Kosio drags me off into the car.
And Corinne ends up coming too.
As Chris honks his horn and yells out of his window: “If it’s not on, it’s not on!”
If only he knew what irony was.
And then Tanya hits him in the arm.
Love, is a violence masquerade.
Chapter 25: The Hills
There are all these hills around the rainbow region. Lush hills, green hills. Hills with macadamias growing on them, hills with none.
I look around the back seat of the car and notice that Petra is not with us.
“We’ve forgotten a character.”
“What?” Says Corinne with a grimace.
“Why didn’t Petra want to come?”
“Why are you so interested in her?”
“No reason, I just thought she might like to come.”
“She was sick from last night.” Another grimace.
Things were starting to add up. Petra, it is obvious now, was just one of those characters you meet, and then they leave, and you never see them again. Just like Clint Eastwood, waltzes in one end of town, blows everyone away and just waltzes back off into the sunset.
“Hey, let’s stop by the macadamias. I want to get a photo!” I say.
“Do you know where we are going?” Asks Kosio.
“No. We were just following Chris.”
Shit, yeah, Chris, the plan, keep with plan man. Where the hell is Chris? I look through the window, he’s hurtling through the countryside at alarming speed.
“Honk the horn, otherwise you’ll lose him. He’s a lunatic when he gets behind a wheel.”
Kosio honks a few times. I know Chris will ignore this but rely on the sensibleness of his better half. A few ks of honking and they stop.
Chris gets out of the car a rolls himself a fag, “what’s up… bro?”
Need some sleep, my head sways… and forgetting and straying. I compose myself as I chew the macadamia bar. “I want to photograph the nuts”.
He draws on his smoke like a French cowboy. “Oh man, there’s like a million nut trees around here, why do you need a photo of them for.”
He’s the most stressed out hippy I know. Drives like a goofy footed maniac heading to a party of other maniacs. He got the kombi stuck in the mud once and kept just spinning the wheels and digging it deeper and I kept whacking on the side to stop the maniactic spinning, chucking branches and underneath for traction. A nut. I dove away just in time to see a German van hurtling into orbit. Just wouldn’t bloody stop…
“I’m not smiling for your stupid photos.”
“Chris why don’t you just get in his photo.” Says Tanya, “he hasn’t been here for ages.”
“Okay, but just this once.”
Eventually we get to where we are going.
1987, that was the year I left my catholic school Marymount, or Fairymount, as it was affectionately known, and ventured off to state’s version of education: PBC high school.
Day One: year 11: First signs are good; girls wearing skirts that just cover their sports undies. Slightly see through tops. Mary mother of God. Not that it makes much difference to me, no one’s going to look at my pox ridden face with any lust, and my persona is not a Cary Grant or even Bogart and it definitely isn’t a Kelly Slater or whoever the hell was surf champion of the year is this year around – which was more to the point considering he was the one I imagined they all wanted to go down the dunes with (girls and boys alike). Not that I actually had a clue about anything in particular in the final two years of the 80s, especially. 90s haven’t been much help either.
So I’d decided I just ain’t going to fit into PBC – not much room in three letters anyway – as it was known to all and sundry here. But I’d use the place to promote my intellectual prowess, rather than go for love or any prestigious Kelly Slater factor. I walk around a bit, wondering where the hell to go, seriously faced, very unfriendly, a new school – bingo. But there was always the see through tops.
I sit under a tree, like the Buddha, thinking of titles of magazines I could start when a lanky, olive skinned nerd comes running over to me.
“Hi I’m Chris, what’s your name?”
He was the very first person to speak to me, so he became my best friend, later to be joined by an Egyptian Christian whose mother made real baclava.
We were the three Musketeers. To us at least. I think to everyone else we were just the losers that sat under the bush behind the art building at lunch. I like baklava.
I had to punch out a few little shits who thought I was a geek. But everyone knew the rules, forged in the jungle, that once I’d hit a certain amount of noses, that I should best be left alone because I was a little bit psycho. And that if I hit any one bigger than myself, that I should be carried off and disposed of in the dunes.
I was there, but like the aboriginal kids, ignored.
I face a glass wall overlooking a valley with hills of camphor laurel rainforest – the Chinese tree that has replaced whatever Australian rainforest there used to be.
Good thing about camphor laurel is that you can chop it down and people think you’re an environmentalist!
Little houses here and there — hippy settlers, the “real” ones.
The sun, it sets over the ridge.
Chris, like Robin Williams in Awakenings, jumps to attention holding up a strange instrument that looks like a bunch of rusty spoon ends arranged in different lengths along a wooden base.
“Man, do like my imbira?” he says, “Just got it from Zimbabwe, from one of the guys in Luke’s band.” He plays a few notes. Ding, ding, ding. It sounds like spoons being flicked by finger tips.
I reach for my bag.
Stocks getting low; it’s off to Nimbin we go.
Good thing about these parts, is they get a small crop around September/ October.
“Let me role that man, you fucking can’t spliff for shit.”
“I thought you were off it.”
“I can’t watch those retarded constructions you assemble.”
I look around the valley is so beautiful a crystal mobile starts to turn dark as the last rays of sun retreat onto the horizon a the sun drops disappear.
“I might end up smoking Marley”.
“Wow, Jesus Christ, you been going to big J rolling doob school.”
Chris lights up the spliff and cool grey smoke fills the air, floating up into the tree’s branches. As he talks smoke comes from his nose and mouth.
“She’s having a shower”. He passes the batton.
“You remember that time you punched out that guy at school for calling you pizza face?”
“Get fucked.” I toke – better smoke whilst the cat’s away. My acne was long gone, so he was safe.
In Melbourne I never had anything like that. They were too civilised down there — at least the artsy crowd I hung around.
I would never hit any women. Though I did push this scrag at school when she interrupted me and Billy’s (the Egyptian) hand ball match and I had to split early every day for a fortnight to avoid violent retribution from her boyfriend.
Now I was on another boyfriends list of dead men.
“You better tell Corinne to go easy on the water, Sky’s been giving birth to watermelons cause it hasn’t rained for two and a half weeks.”
I sit for a bit and finish the joint, first things first.
Corinne dries her hair and breasts. She’s thinking of going home. I know; I can’t stop her.
“It’s too hot.” I go around to the shower and drop my clothes. There’s a big window by the tub, I can make out the neighbour’s house on a distant hill.
I lather up with the lemon grass scented hemp soap.
A few moments later, “what?”
“You know I really do love you.”
I don’t stay in the shower long. Fun and games aside, these people did run on tank water. You could smoke all their pot, sleep with their spouses, wear funny clothes like a wizard and start your own religion, but if you wasted their tank water you were seriously uncool, and generally condemned to splash a bit of cold creek water on your body rather than be given the luxury of a warm shower.
“This is like being married again.” She says.
I take a moment to register, but, did I hear right? Marriage?
Now I was on some husband’s death list.
Chapter 26: Hippies I Presume…
Five muscle men with big hands and their shirts off. They hit their drums together. And again. Chris’s brother Luke is amongst the five, his long blonde hair and tanned body bristling with muscle. He’s a bit of a young stud around these parts and the girls love him so much that they just want to take all their clothes off and rub against his body.
I could almost go for him if I was a girl, though he’s a bit of a slut.
Their hands coordinate with consummate ease, like real black men — only they’re all white. They play some rhythms learnt in Zimbabwe and man the place is rocking. Hippies going off left right and centre, old men with beards, all of us men have our shirts off and are jumping up and down like absolute idiots, stopping occasionally for a joint or “space cookie”. The woman wear skimpy tops, I notice on the whole these hippies have little regard for bras. It is summer and we are all here in this little hall and the sweat is dripping off us and onto the drummers drums, and the place is getting free getting frisky. Even Corinne is getting into the action, with the aid of a few local cocktails, I smell vodka, schnapps and fresh tropical fruits— what the hell would her husband say? He’s going to chop one of my nuts off one day I’m sure. Sneak up with his Swiss army knife and just whip one of the little bastards off before I can say boo.
I dance around, appreciating my two testicles — you always gotta take time to appreciate the little blessings in life. And then some old man with a long white beard grabs a young lady, a third of his age and they dance together hip to hip like some flamingos or something.
The beat gets into your head, you can’t get it out, you gotta dance, gotta push yourself till you’re ready to explode, I hold Corinne’s hips and dance from behind, bare chested, adrenalin pumping through my veins. No one cares here, no one matters, just part of the sound.
In the crowd I see young Simon, his plated beard bouncing up and down, his big smile, I go and boogey with him as well and the beats getting more intense and we want more and the five boys give us more. And then a flute comes out and a didgeridoo and the place is going fucking wild now man. There is some serious dancing going on now, voodoo shit, muscles flexing woman smiling, men smiling back, children running around past their bed times as they tend to do here and in Spain.
And the roof looks like it just ain’t going to hold. It was only designed for scouts and square dancing, and old hall for the old Australia, not some pack of heathens, and the place is going to come, there’s got to be a climax soon, and it gets louder and faster, and your blood it just can’t keep up. You’re not even there anymore, you’re on cloud nine, a peaceful place with fairies. You’ve transcended the world John. You are now in Never Never land. And you take a few steps boy, make hay while the sun shines.
And then the music stops, and I hear the heavy breathing.
Corinne grabs me, and I’m just like man, sex is overrated compared to this shit, Time for a cup of chai tea and another space cookie.
We walk outside into the cool night as the boys starting thumping away again. Bails of hay and local hills people are placed here and there, smelling divine.
Patchouli and sandalwood permeate the air.
“Do you want a cup of tea dear?” I ask.
“Maybe one more cocktail.”
“Do you have any money?”
She hands over some notes that she’s had stuck in her bra. The plastic is nice and warm, and miraculously survived the experience. And then Petra is there again. Sitting talking to Christophe. It’s a small world, characters you thought you’d never see again just keep coming back.
They just don’t stop.
I buy my tea and cookie and cocktail and juggle them back to the little group who are all getting along splendidly.
And why would they not get along so splendidly.
Chris is so much more exited now that he realises that we know Petra. He’s like wow man, and then Kosio comes over and he’s impressed even more.
The murmur of conversation goes on all around us, Corinne whispers in my ear,
“I want to sleep with you.”
In a field, under the stars, behind the little square hall we go to make love and it feels calm and soothing. We lay there under the stars, naked and I know this isn’t going to last long. And I know she has to go away. But we are here, and that’s were I want to be.
“Do you love your husband Corinne?” We are both clothed now, just laying looking at the stars. The boys have stopped it with the drumming and some techno music is coming muffled from the hall.
“I don’t know. Who knows?”
“You don’t really like talking about him do you?”
“No. But I will tell you something. In my village he could have any woman that he wanted, but I got him.”
“Pretty competitive hey?”
“I just have a strong will, I take what I want. You know my star sign is the one for many leaders.”
“Which one is that?”
“The um,” she whirls her fingers around her ears, “the man sheep.”
“Yes, this sheep, Widder.” She laughs, she is drunk, she picks up her glass and finishes off the last of her cocktail. “You know, you are very good at making my words into English. You just read my mind.”
“That was Adolf Hitler’s sign I think.”
“Oh, he was not the only one, there were many of the man sheep, what is it? Areies.”
“Okay, I won’t remember this, you can just speak for me now.” She lies on my lap, “I am tired of English, it is too difficult, we should go home.”
It is getting cooler, I think of ticks, rolling around in the grass, we will surely get ticks. The little blood sucking parasites.
“Corinne, what do I mean to you?”
She just lays there, unaware of the tiny vampires that threaten our well-being, hardly aware at all I think.
“But I was just thinking I don’t mean anything to you. I’m just some stupid Australian to have sex with.”
She rises unsteadily and looks a little serious, as serious as a drunken Swiss woman laying in a field with bits of grass stuck to her face, can look, “that is not true! How can you say that? Why would I be here with you, if I don’t care for you. I could be anywhere I want. But I am here, so shut up.”
Ah, a little emotion to top off a splendid evening. The matter has not rested though, it’s like a cup of coffee, you feel satisfied for a time, then a few hours later you need another top up.
“I don’t want to meet you John. I just did.” She starts mumbling in Swiss German for a bit, I can’t understand this type of German, it is not the normal High German, it’s really another language, I want to learn it but Corinne tells me it is umpossible to learn, so I gave up. “Let us just enjoy our time. Okay?”
She has a kind face now, a drunken, swaying, thoughtfully sweet face, “I do want to be with you. But don’t speak tonight, I have no brain for talking now. Okay?”
“Okay? We should go up and talk to the others then, they might think we’ve been eaten by snakes or something.”
“Let us sit for a moment, just quiet. All I want is quiet. Shhhh” She puts her finger onto my lips, I shut up.
Corinne sleeps. I love the valley, I love the trees, I love the bats and the stars and the music and the energy.
I hear Christophe enthusiastically making a point about how great his imbira is and how he is going to start making them and selling them at the market, and the Kosio tells him that he speaks to fast and that he should slow down.
It’s a melting pot, Bulgarians, part French, Swiss, African music and ticks.
Chapter 28/9: Go for its throat
Perhaps they don’t want to admit it, but Chris and Luke are enjoying themselves, sitting there with a pole in their hands, purple and green light cotton clothes with Hindu motifs of many armed gods, cigarette’s hanging out of their mouths, shoulder length hair, dark sunglasses and sandals.
Some other fishermen, proper Aussie fishermen, sit up the groyne a bit in chequered blues and greys, trying to ignore us frivolous. They are serious fishermen, we are a bunch of larks.
I puff away a bit on a spliff, it feels nice, but I know, from tomorrow, if I want to be with Corinne, I’ll have to stop.
And not just for her, for me.
Brunswick Heads, is just a little village, a few houses a caravan park and a pub.
“Fuck man there are these huge schools of mullet here man, do you see them?” Asks Chris enthusiastically.
“Yeah, of course.” I say with the overtly obvious shoal of mullet before me in the greenish-blue river. But I don’t want to discuss the mullet, I just needing to sit and stare at the water after days of partying. Recharge the batteries.
“It’s going to be good having you up here man.” Continues Chris, “you can come stay with us if you want, just for a bit, but I know a few brothers around here and I might be able to score you a place with more water.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be staying here,” I say, throwing a small rock into the school of inch long mullet, ruining their formation for a moment as they dart for safety. But they come back after a moment, there’s hundreds of them, forming long lines just off the rocks, like soldiers waiting to be let into some canteen or something. “I got to go look for work. I can’t hang around here for long. You know I didn’t come up here to smoke dope and trip. That’s cool for a bit…”
“Shit!” Chris stands, his six foot plus stature looks even higher from my position sitting on the rocks. His rod arches and bends, “fuck man!” He stands there stunned as a mullet.
“Reel it in! You got a fish on there.” I state thinking this is pretty obvious but not really trusting in Chris’s killer instinct.
“Shit.” Chris’s very long olive arms do all these very ungraceful twirls and twists and contortions as they work at reeling the fish in. He looks a bit like John Cleese in any of the Monty Python Flying Circusessssss. But eventually he has this rather large flathead dangling over the rocks. He breathes shallowly, obviously experience some adrenalin rush. “I got something! How the hell did I get that?” He rubs his hand through his hair in wonderment.
I laugh, I can’t help but laugh at him. “Well you better kill it now.” I say, unfolding the Opinel’s tarnished, but razor sharp, blade from its wooden handle and handing it to him. His hand shakes as he accepts, he looks the fish in the eyes then tentatively scratches at its head, barely cutting the skin, jumping back when it flicks its tail in futile defence.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“I can’t cut the bloody thing!”
Kosio and Luke have come over to inspect, I take the knife from his hands and plunge it into the fishes head and its tail nervously twitches, then I slit its throat. Normally I don’t take a second thought about this, but seeing poor old emotionally shaken Chris there, I kind of feel bad. It looks as though he just lost a pet bunny. Or like he’d just found a new friend and I slit its throat and its blood was spilling on the rocks.
“You got to do it quickly.” I say as gently and compassionately as I can, “how would you like it if someone slowly cut your head off?”
He holds the poor bunny up, it is limp. He’s caught between crying and elation.
“Wow,” says Kosio, “let’s cook it up.” He goes to the car to get the implements, ignoring Chris’s emotional dilemma, and in a while we are eating succulent freshly cooked withe flesh.
Chris is still in shock, I have to roll him a little joint just to calm him down. I give him a plate with a few little pieces of tail on. He just stares ahead and chews.
“Oh, nice,” Says Luke, “thanks for killing that mate.”
“Fuck, I can’t believe I just caught this thing and then killed it and now we’re eating it.”
We all keep munching, this fish is bloody delicious.
“Can I have the rest of yours then?” Asks Luke.
“No fucking way! I killed the mother fucker and I’m going to eat some of it.” He chews away then re-baits his line and casts back in with all the excitement of a primary school kid. And it’s getting so hot and we all want to go for a swim, but he catches another and it’s bigger than the first. And he’s just as excited as he was with the first, almost jumping out of his skin.
“Haven’t you done this before?” I ask.
“No man, my grandad thought fishing was a waste of time.”
“What are you going to do with this one?”
“Cook it up and lets go, I’m fucking hot.” Says Luke, and the other fishermen, look over to us, thinking ‘beginner’s luck”. But we don’t give a fuck about what they think, we’re from Queensland, we do what the hell we like — apart from Kosio who’s not from Queensland but does what he wants anyway.
This time Chris sucks the bones bare, lapping up the juices.
“Had enough yet?” I ask.
And he licks his fingers and his lips, “that was delicious, why did God have to make these things taste so good.”
“I’m going to tell Sky man, he’s going to flip out,” goads Luke.
“Look what I choose to kill and eat outside his property is my own business.” He finishes preening himself, “but then again, this might be better kept between us four, I don’t want everyone to think I’m some sort of redneck.”
“Ah stuff them!” Says Kosio.
Yeah, why not? Stuff them all, stuff the world, stuff every fucking thing. People were sitting around sucking on flathead bones thousands of years before we all came. And I don’t see no problem with continuing the tradition.
And we pack up and get into the kombi, singing to the gods, thanking them for lunch.
“So when’s your son arriving?” I ask in the back seat as Chris screams along the Pacific highway, south towards Byron.
“About 3 p.m.”
Chris’s mobile rings, he answers holding the large white wheel between his elbows as he does, but having to grab hold again as he approaches a bend in the highway, “hello!” he yells over the raucous motor, “what?!…Yeah sweet, we’ll see you there!” He throws the phone done onto the front seat and puts his foot down on the accelerator as he persuades the old Kombi up a hill. “Come on baby, you can do it.”
“How long does it take to get to Brisbane from here?” Asks Kosio.
“About two and a bit hours.” We bounce around the Kombi starts a descent on the other side of the hill. “Why do you want to go back to Melbourne for?!”
“I don’t know. I was thinking of going back to Bulgaria actually.” He rolls himself a cigarette, tobacco spilling out all over the place as Chris swerves to avoid something.
“What the hell are you swerving all over the road for?!” Yells Luke.
Everyone has to yell, German motor you see, it’s not built for comfort — in just about every conceivable way, seats, steering, suspension, all as rough as guts. “I thought I saw a rabbit!”
“What are you talking about?! There’s no fucking rabbits around here!”
And they keep arguing as tourists and families in their late eighties and early nineties Holdens and Fords zoom along with bikes and crap strapped to their rooves, off to visit some relatives for the Christmas holidays.
“Yeah, I might go and live in this cave up in this village in the mountains!”
“Yeah that place sounds cool! What about your son?!”
“He’s got a few weeks left of holidays, we’ll drive back slowly, bum around a bit!” He pauses, “I don’t think I’m a very good influence but it might do him good! He looks so bored in Melbourne, I don’t understand, we were never bored in Sofia. We always had some scheme worked out! We used to get into a lot of trouble but we got away with most things. Mick’s been caught twice for spray painting! Twice?! I don’t mind him doing that, but you don’t get caught twice! Once is even too much!”
“Hey Johnno!” yells Chris.
“Have you been to these tea tree lakes?!” He turns the left indicator on a few kilometres north of the Byron turn off.
“Oh man, you’re going to love them!” He screams off the highway into a sharp left. Soon we’re bouncing around over potholes along some dirt track.
“What about Corinne and that?!”
“Where are we going?!” Asks Kosio.
The dust swirled as little rocks shot into the bush as we passed a sign that said beware of dragons. Actually it was an adaptation of a sign designed to warn of roos, but some larrikin had painted triangles all along the black kangaroo’s back and it now also had smoke coming from its nose.
We arrived where ever it was that were going a few moments later, and Chris and Luke jumped out without explanation and walked into the dense tea trees following a narrow sand track.
There were two other cars parked by the track, one of which was Tanya’s.
Following the track for a bit I came across a lake — putting two and two together I felt it must be the tea tree lake.
Tanya, Corinne and Sheyla, the mother of Luke’s only daughter, sat mostly naked by the water’s edge, with young Kayla, Luke’s kid.
By mostly naked I mean that Sheyla and Tanya were totally naked and Corinne just had her top, off as I’d expect.
Luke was now coaxing Kayla into the water to join him for a bit of a swim.
“Come in man!” yells Chris.
“Yeah, I’ll get in in a minute.” I walk over to Corinne.
“Hello John,” says Sheyla in her American accent.
“Hi how are you?” I didn’t really get along with this woman, but felt politeness was appropriate none-the-less.
“Where did you guys go?” asks Tanya.
“Yeah, your boyfriend got two flatheads.”
Sheyla wasn’t into fishing and I caught a bit of that what-you-going-round-killing-things-for attitude, so I was happy it was a day I could lay the blame on my best mate, he was perpetually arguing with Sheyla anyhow, so one more devisive issue wouldn’t hurt.
“Did you get me a present?” I ask Corinne.
“Yes, I did. But you cannot have it till later.”
I take my clothes off and walk into the water. It is black, you can’t see into it, I’m wary at first for the place looks like oil, but then I plunge into the coolness, and once you leave the surface a bit it is very cool.
Corinne moves down to the shallows and sits in the mud.
Chris sneaks up beside me, “nice woman, hey?”
I swim towards the other side of the lake, Chris follows.
After a few breath strokes I reply, between breaths “I don’t really (breath) even (breath) know her that well (breath) man.”
“So? (breath) You guys seem to (breath) get along anyway.”
“It’s like a new (breath) adventure man, (breath) plus (breath) she’s married. (breath) God (breath) it’s (breath) cold (breath) down a few inches.”
“Yeah (breath) man (breath) helps the circulation.”
In spite of its appearance the water feels clean and smooth, and every so often I dive down just below the warm surface and touch upon the coldness. I’m even brave enough to go down about a meter for a second, opening my eyes, wondering what is down there.
We reach the other side and sit on the bank and regain our breaths.
“I might go away tomorrow.” I say.
“What?! You just got here.” Chris says with some irritation.
“Yeah , I don’t know how much time Corinne’s got, and I just want to be with her.”
“You can hang out here for a bit. Jesus, what you too embarrassed about us, not fucking good enough for you? Huh, and your Swiss girlfriend.”
“Look Kosio’s off tomorrow, and Corinne is now travelling on her own, and I just think that if she wants to, we should just go off by ourselves. Okay? Does that suit you?”
“Will you come back for New Years?”
“But I wanted you to come hang out with me…”
“Just let me be for a few weeks, I don’t even know if she’ll say yes. There’s husband factor to consider of course. But I’m starting to think screw the husband, screw you, screw every fucking one, I’m just going to go out and do something for me, hopefully with her.”
“Then you’ll fall in love with her and you’ll never visit us because you’ll be too embarrassed about us and she’ll say, no you can’t go visit that Chris it’s your turn to change the nappies…”
“Oh shut up for Christ’s sake, I don’t even fucking know how anything is going to turn out, so just shut the fuck up, please. You’re too much.”
Chris sits back and holds his hands with his palms facing me and says, “chill out bro, you been hanging out with those stressful Europeans too long, I’m just trying to be your friend.”
“Why are we even having this discussion? It’s so fucking pointless. Okay, let’s just not talk anymore.”
“She’s got nice breasts though.”
And with that I had to start swimming back, with Chris yelling, “Johnno, don’t leave me!” Like some idiot. And as I swim I see Kosio in the shallows, looking sad and misplaced, splashing water on his body, and Keyla crying because Luke has let her little feet go into the cold water, and Sheyla chastising Luke for letting Keyla’s feet touch the cold part and Luke standing and shaking his finger in time with his rather large dick as he holds Keyla out of the water. And Sheyla picks up some mud and rubs it into Luke’s hair, as she takes the poor baby away from him. And I don’t know what Corinne thinks as she swims out to me and whispers with a devilish smile, “you are all so naked. I don’t like too many clothes when I am swimming.”
“I don’t like you to have too many clothes either.”
She squeezes my nose hard. It hurts.
I give her my proposal, and she thinks for one second and then says yes, as long as I really stop the pot.
And I must have something in my eye that says I will give it my best effort, and I feel happy.
Chapter 30: Corinne and I
It is of course sad to leave Kosio, we make small talk with each other as he prepares to go collect his son, but ultimately we just want it over and done with.
“Will you still be up here around Christmas?” I ask.
“Well give us a call at my parents if you are, I’ll probably end up there for a bit. And give K some address if you end up going to Bulgaria.”
We shake hands.
“Thanks for the lift man, hope you find what you’re looking for — somewhere out there.” I say.
“No problem, good luck with the woman and job hunting.”
“Better go get the boy then, show him around Australia a bit.”
And he gets in the car and starts it, and drives up the hill, and heads for Queensland as I wave and he waves back.
I stand for a moment on the driveway, by myself, wondering if I’m doing the right thing, wondering if Corinne and I will be good partners in crime, wondering where I’ll live and what I’ll do to earn a quid when I’m old… Then I stop wondering and I smell the leaves, and look down to the valley as Kosio’s car backs down the driveway and he yells, “do I go left or right?!”
“Right, then left at the highway, then just follow the signs to Brisbane.”
He honks his horn and heads off again as I walk back to the flat slowly taking in the trees and the birds on the way…
The Gold Coast — a few months later.
I open the door with my spare arm, the other holding this huge flathead, the rain is now quite heavy and relieving.
No job, no woman, no friends. I just got to get out of this place, I think as I start cutting the massive head from my fish. My sister walks in and, repulsed by the amount of blood on the bench says, “did you catch that?”
“That’s good. I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
It was fun while it lasted and sad when it finished.
Corinne and I got as far as Airlie Beach, almost to Townsville, when we finally called it a day a couple of days into the new year.
She flew back to Sydney and I got on a bus with a copy of a Taoist text, deciding by the end of the trip that I should just watch my step. It was all about watching your step.
We’d enjoyed a few days hitching around Fraser Island, something I can’t recommend for there are only three shops on the 100 kilometre long island, and every car is filled to the brink with supplies leaving no room for drifters. But we managed, didn’t think we would, but Corinne spat the dummy and said I had no adventure so I just had to do what she said and hoped we wouldn’t die.
And we helped some fisherman in search of mullet roe pull in some nets on Fraser’s beaches. And we ate potatoes and a few dart and bream that I managed to catch by the shore and watched the backpackers in the organised tour vehicles pass us by as we sat for days stranded by a fresh water creek with a kind family who took pity on us and eventually gave us mince meat and a lift down to where someone might actually pick us up.
We’d climbed Mount Warning, saw the big pineapple and marvelled at the house of bottles. And we swam and walked and fell truly in love…
But she had to leave, I’d told her she had too. I don’t know why I told her she had to. Perhaps I was a moron, a brainless spineless, loser.
I start to try and fillet this huge fish, the bench is now covered in red.
The last three months, without her, have been amongst the most miserable I have experienced.
She sent me a water colour painting of Sydney Harbour before she left and gave me her Swiss Army Knife with the teary words, “this was the knife that we used together that I want you to have. I never want to learn “wraiting” in English.”
And a small drop of water was evident on one of the sails of the Opera House, smudging the paint a little.
We had spent Christmas day with my family on the Coast, and my three younger sisters had welcomed her like one of them and my young brother had said funny things, like he does.
Even my father had been hospitable and curtailed his use of the word “cunt” for the whole two days we were there. And my mother and I and Corinne had gone to the supermarket and bought a turkey and stuffed I stuffed it with pistachios.
I tried writing to her in her village in Switzerland, but she didn’t reply, I tried telling her that I wanted her here but that it just was not possible at the moment. Anyone in their right minds could see that.
I need to look for work and earn money and start a career.
But the line at the Centrelink office in Palm Beach, stretched out onto the pavement, every morning, the automatic doors not closing for more than a moment, right up until midday.
And there was no business that I could actually work for here, it wasn’t even a city for Christ’s sake. What the hell was I thinking anyway? Getting carried away with childhood memories of happy days down the beach, or driving Chris’s little Suzuki hatch out into Tallebudgera Valley to smoke some hooch and getting so high that we thought that vicious koala’s were coming to tear us apart.
I feel the looks of everyone, I know they probably don’t care, but they seem to stare anyway and I can’t stop them getting into my head.
Doctor tomorrow, Byron Bay the next day.
All I can do is fish. And when it’s dark, all I can do is write my book called, The Little Book of Mass Destruction, a tale of a spy who meets a girl at an alien research centre in the outback.
Agent Juanito pulls out his knife and slices the belly of the huge creature, inspecting it’s innards.
“My god,” he exclaims, “If I’m not mistaken it resembles a fish.”
“Agent Juanito, what does this mean? Fish-like aliens, falling from the stars. My son missing.” Says Agatha, in her Venetian accent.
“I don’t have any idea Agatha, don’t ask me, can’t you work something out for yourself.”
“Hey I’m new to this planet, and you are meant to be this “hot-shit” detective…”They all say, ‘Juanito’, he is the hot-shit detective.”
“People say a lot of things Agatha, but if they actually knew anything, they’d probably actually shut the hell up. That’s something you have to learn on Earth Agatha, people most of the time just talk for the sake of having their lips moving…”
The phone rings. Odd for three a.m. I go out and turn the lights on as cockroaches scurry behind the fridge and behind the cupboards.
“John, it is me.”
“I haven’t heard from you for months. What are you doing?”
“Oh, it is cold here, the sun is never out. It is so miserable.” She is weeping. “I don’t want to be here.”
“I don’t want to be here either.”
“Can I see you again?”
This is a bit of shock all I can say is, “This is a bit of a shock.”
“You don’t want me there.”
“No, I do want you here, I want you here more than anyone.”
“I don’t know. Switzerland is so sad for me. I have no more husband, after he came back on his motor cycle, well he didn’t really come back, he had enough of me.”
Silence for a moment.
“Come over in a few months, can you wait that long?”
“I just want to leave now.” And there is something more in her voice, something that she is not saying, just like Sacha a few weeks earlier. “my father die.”
“I just want to leave.”
“Yes,” she starts to weep and I hear her tears falling in a place I’ve never been. Falling for a man I’ve never met. But strangely enough I smile, and I for the first time in a while I realise the importance of caring for someone in their sadness. And a tear comes to my eye, for this girl in northern Switzerland, holding a phone, struggling with another language, wanting me to share in her sadness.
I don’t know what I’ll do, or if she will come — I don’t know anything.
But I say yes again and figure it’s all best worked out as you go along.
Step by step.
I don’t belong here.
The End. J.R.Atwood 1998