I went north trying to get a little time away from Sydney: trying to relax. Whenever I finish writing a longer creative piece I feel the urge to go. To sever the cord. I was also excited to find out if having access to the deep water off the ledge at Pearl Beach would mean hooking a real big fish.
I’d always known the water at Pearl Beach got deep fast. I’d first noticed it on a family holiday when I was a kid. Had the knowledge thrust on me really. I’d been body surfing and got dumped face first into the sand. I’d heard my back cracking. My legs came the wrong way over the top. I looked up and saw my heels, if you can imagine it. Then I couldn’t breath.
‘You can still walk?’
‘You’ll be fine mate.’
The sort of breathless feeling I get when a character I’m describing is suffering in some inferno. I’ve been thinking about that deep water. Fishing from the beach is my favourite but the problem is always that you have to cast a long way to get into the deep.
There are usually gutters and banks where the water gets shallow again about twenty meters from the shore. It’s difficult to get a cast past the shallow part. But the water doesn’t get shallow again at Pearl Beach. It just gets deep, right away, like a story beginning in medias res.
There are usually only small waves because the beach is a good way in from the headlands. When the big waves do come they break right onto the sand, like obstacles crashing into a hero.
I walked out to the rocky ledge at the south end of Pearl Beach. The weather was calm. The ledge ran along the north side of the headland and it faced back towards the beach so where I was standing was also sheltered from the bigger waves.
I looked to the beach on my left and saw there wasn’t much water surging onto the sand. Hardly any white water. It was almost totally flat in front of me, just lapping gently at the rocks by my feet, making the slurp, slap sound. It was all sparkling greens and blues until you got to the golden sand, or the rocky headland opposite.
The ledge I was standing on was white, almost golden too, and crumbly underfoot. I wasn’t wearing any shoes. I’d taken off my thongs, happy to cop a bit of searing pain from the heat on the soles of my feet.
Behind me, the cliff side rose up about twenty meters. I didn’t know what was up there, whether there were any houses.
I saw the rock at the base of the cliff had been eaten away by the water, making little caves: useful cocoons of shade. Protection from the midday sun that was hot overhead and bearing down hard. Almost like it had a weight of its own. It was nearly too hot to fish from the beach but those caves would make fishing from the rocks a good prospect.
I tied on my hooks and swivel using a backwards double loop knot. It was the simplest and quickest knot I knew and the envy of other fishers once they got over their skepticism. Other knots were stronger but took longer and cut up my fingers. I always shuddered when I saw the calloused fingers of older fishermen: that white, hard skin.
I was keen to get a line in the water. I fed a medium sized hook through the top of the hood of a squid, then I attached a second hook to the bottom of the hood and ran it through the flesh between the squid’s eyes to keep its head attached to the body.
I pulled the bail arm back and caught the line with my pointer finger against the rod. I moved the rod tip and the squid behind me and bounced it up and down, testing its weight. I pulled down hard, wrenching the butt leftways across my body, trying to create a whip or flick in the tip.
I cast that squid out as far as I could into the blue, green water. I flicked the bail back into position, then I stood looking at the concentric circles flowing out from where the squid had landed.
I walked backward towards the alcove and saw there was a circular hole in one of the rocks. It might have been man-made, I wasn’t sure. I put the end of my rod into the hole and saw it fit nicely. The rod even sat forward a little like it was meant to, which would stop the line getting tied up around the tip. If the line got all tangled up there it would snap if something big pulled, or I tried to cast.
I walked to the shelter of the cave and laid out my towel. I lay down on my side and looked at the tip of the rod. Then I sat up and dug into my pocket and found the little clip with the bells attached. I walked back and took the rod out of the hole. It was a beach rod, a twelve footer. I had to walk along to the far end to attach the bells with the clip.
When that was done I went to the shade and lay down on my back with my hands behind my head. I had a quick recce for snakes and spiders then I checked the rest of my squid wasn’t lying out in the sun.
I half glimpsed people walking past on their way to the eastern most point of the headland. There was a large rocky ledge out that way which curved away round to the south. I’d sat out there looking across the water to the heads and the open ocean. Big waves rolled in between the heads and broke on that rock ledge.
From there I’d seen Lion Island where I knew the escaped convicts James Martin and Mary Bryant had stopped and found food on their way to Timor.
I would have been fishing out there, but I’d been told all about how rock fishing was the most dangerous sport in the country. People died all the time. Lots of blokes were proud to fish the dangerous spots, boasted about it if you asked them.
I remembered the time I’d asked a fisho where he wet his line and all he’d said was, ‘Eighty six dead mate. Eighty six dead.’
I knew the problem was that the sea looked tame and predictable. It wasn’t the ordinary waves that came up and grabbed people. It was the unusual ones. The one in ten thousand.
Lots of folks had staked their lives on their knowledge of the sea, but it just turned on you too fast. You were tempting fate if you didn’t wear a life jacket while fishing the rocks.
A tall woman with deeply tanned skin and long wavy brown hair walked by my alcove. She looked lost in her thoughts. She gazed up at my fishing rod and then followed a line of thinking and found me lying in the shade.
She smiled and I smiled. She stopped at the alcove next to mine and laid out her towel. A man wearing a blue button-up shirt and leather boat shoes walked by holding his towel and a picnic basket.
He nodded to me, then he sat down next to the woman and they started chatting about the spot and the weather, and then they started kissing. I could hear them after I looked away.
I glanced up at my rod tip but really I was listening out for the bells. I could relax when I had the bells. It was different without them. Fishing was almost completely passive with them. Like some lazy river figure out of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn’s world tying the end of a line around their toe. All I had to do was doze in the warmth and keep an ear out.
I heard the sound of scuffing heels. I saw a kid who was wearing a red T-shirt come barreling into my field of view from the beach. As he got closer I noticed his blood shot eyes. He looked up at my rod and then trotted over to me. He was holding a simple fishing rod with a reel that looked like it would break with only a little pressure.
He said, ‘Hi.’
I said, ‘Hello.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Beautiful spot here.’
‘Can I have some line?’ he asked.
‘Where’s your line?’
‘I don’t have any. Can I have some?’
‘I don’t have any to spare.’
‘What about all that line?’ he asked, pointing at my spare line.
‘But that’s my line. I’m going to need it.’
He narrowed his beestung eyes at me and clenched his pudgy fists, like a dissatisfied co-writer. He drew in a couple of breaths while he was clenching then he stomped onward in the direction of the headland.
I watched him go and saw there were other fishermen out that way now who must have come back from the ledge that faced the Pacific. They were using lures on the surface, fishing for tailor. I saw they were having a good time, pulling in fish. Every thirty seconds or minute one of them would hook on to something and their rod tip would bend right down.
They were casting out hard, then reeling in quick, keeping the lure near the surface, sometimes breaking the surface. I knew that splash could attract the fish and whip them into a kind of feeding frenzy.
The boy had started talking to one of those men. The kid put out his hand and the fisherman shook it. They talked some more and then walked back to the man’s tackle bag and the man handed the boy a spool of line. The kid sat down and attached the line to his reel and started winding it on.
When he had finished he walked over to the man again at the water’s edge and they got chatting. The bloke walked back to his gear then found a lure which he gave to the boy. The kid began casting out beside the man.
I dropped my eyes to the couple next to me who had started eating their picnic. Nice looking bread, cheeses and grapes. Butter and chutney. They had their legs stretched out in the sun, with their bodies in the shade of their little cave.
They looked back at me and grinned and then both raised their eyebrows and tilted their heads towards the boy, indicating they were watching this narrative unfold. I raised my eyebrows at them and grinned: one subplot was aware of the another playing out.
The rod of the man standing next to the boy bent in half, the tip almost touching the water. The bloke pulled back hard and walked back too. The other people on the ledge began to congregate, eager to check out what he’d got.
He fought hard, pulling up and back to draw the fish a little closer and then bringing the rod tip down and winding in to take up the slack. He was using light line and I heard the drag singing when the fish turned and put on a run. Finally the flash of silver came struggling through the green and the bloke got it up on the rocks. It was a large tailor with a long thrashing tail, snapping mouth, and powerful sharp teeth.
The bloke knelt down and took some pliers out of the top pocket of his jacket. He sunk a knee into the fish to steady it and removed the hook with a flick of his wrist, like a practiced editor slicing away text. He put the fish head-down in this bucket about five meters from the water’s edge and put a tea towel over it. I saw water splashing out of the bucket.
The boy’s rod twitched and he started reeling in too. His fish looked smaller. His rod tip wasn’t bending down much. He fought it and brought up a tailor the size of an adult hand or so. I walked over to take a look. The older fisherman caught my eye with a snap of his head and I pointed to the bucket and he nodded. I pulled back the tea towel and looked at the big mouth of the tailor with its thick, wrap-around lips. That was how I knew it was a tailor, and the way he’d caught it.
I saw the boy was about to throw his fish back into the sea. He wound his arm like a baseball player, his knee came up.
I said, ‘Whoa.’
He turned around to look at me.
I said, ‘I could use that for bait. Can I have it?’
He looked at the fish in his hand. Its tail was thrashing back and forward. He looked up at me. He walked to the water’s edge and knelt down and dipped the fish’s head into the sea. He looked back and made eye contact with me as he let it slip away.
I walked to the shade. I looked at my fishing rod and thought about changing the bait over. It’d been twenty minutes. That was how long I usually let the bait soak. I could leave it longer with squid because squid was tough and usually stayed on the line. Prawns and pilchards tended to come off my hooks a lot easier. It was impossible to know whether the bait had slipped off or been taken by the little fish, octopus, squid, or even crabs.
I saw coming towards me, with the beach behind him, a man who was not tall but had a barrel chest and carried himself in a puffed up way that made me think of Mussolini. Like a silverback gorilla. He had a deep tan and a purposeful stride.
I stood back to make way for him and smiled as he went by. I wondered where he was going with all that purpose. He pulled up beside the boy and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. They talked for a moment and then they both turned around and the boy pointed at me. I looked away. Then I looked back. The man was still looking at me long and deep with narrowed eyes. I returned to the shade, trying to break the line of sight.
When I put my head around the corner of the cave the pair were focused on the boy’s fishing.I heard the bells tinkling. I walked over, I didn’t run. I waited by the base of the rod, watching the tip. I was using circle hooks, which set themselves in the fish’s lip. Didn’t need to strike, or pull up hard to embed the hook. Set and forget was better. These hooks were made to catch the fish’s lip and not the inside of their guts. It meant more survived. Most of them, I hoped.
My worst fear was that a fish would swim around in pain for twenty years because I’d hooked it and my line snapped. It wasn’t good to think about it. Most good things have a part you can’t think about.
My rod tip pulsed. The bells jangled and then went quiet. Jerked again. It wasn’t dead certain but I grabbed the rod and started reeling in.
There was something on the line that had weight but wasn’t fighting. As it got closer I saw that it was black: it was a Port Jackson shark, with a little mouth. I pulled it up the rocks and walked to my bag and got my pliers. I pulled the circle hook out of the corner of its mouth. I was on my knees.
I looked up and saw the boy standing over me. The father was walking over too. I stood and pushed the shark carefully into the water with my foot. I’d seen footage of sharks twisting around suddenly to take off a hand or a foot.
The man and the boy watched it go, then turned and looked at me. I looked back at them. They remained expressionless. Standing too close to me. They both turned and walked back to the men who were fishing with lures.
I got another squid and put a couple of hooks through it. I didn’t cast as far. I walked back to the shade and when I sat down I heard the couple next to me laughing and kissing. I looked over to the boy and his father who seemed to be lost in their own world again. I looked out at the green water and smelt the brine on the air. Travelling north wasn’t giving me a break from narrative.
Oliver Wakelin is Southerly Reviews Editor, and a fiction reader at Overland. He is a USYD law grad, and a PhD candidate at UNSW. His reviews have appeared in ArtsHub, Audrey Journal, Southerly and elsewhere. Short stories in Seizure,Southerly, and TEXT. A couple of his plays have been read at Sport For Jove Theatre Company. His novel Aos Sí was selected for the longlist of the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award.
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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence