Last week I watched the water lap at the bottom of the pylons at the wharf at Church Point while I waited for my brother Andrew. I had questions to ask him. I’d been given the eviction notice. Things were finally serious. The effort to earn the bulk of my income through my creative endeavors no longer seemed possible.
The water was all glittery and sparkling like a sheet of undulating broken glass. All these variegated greens and blues. Below my feet it was crystal clear.
I saw fish swimming down there. Turning abruptly. Just floating. I guessed they were bream and maybe poddy mullet.
Men drank and smoked on the wharf behind me.
I heard the sound that children make. The screams and the laughter. The sudden tantrums.
I looked to my left at the restaurant on the next wharf along. I watched families stumble out of there after boozy lunches. I thought about living life on Pittwater. There were pubs and shops and restaurants around the water’s edge. I thought about ferrying around in your own microcosm.
The breeze whipped up and was fresh and cool on my skin. The salty smell of the brine made my mouth water.
I looked at my feet as they hovered an inch above the water. The tide came in slow. I kept a watch on the inch between the soles of my shoes and the little waves.
Time passed and then I heard my brother call out. I turned, heavy with sweat. I watched him bound towards me, full of that bonhomie. A little smile and nod for each person he passed.
We shook hands with our chests thrust out and then looked over the water, hands on hips. We commented on things we could see. The island. The boats. The turquoise water. The canopies of the eucalypts blowing on the island in the on-shore breeze.
We walked to my car. I’d parked by the beach. I pulled my inflatable boat out and we carried it between us onto the sand. I looked up at a rusty runabout in the shallow water that was chained to a buoy. It looked like it had been there for ages, like a picture of a boat on a postcard.
It made me think of the way decay can be romantic. I’d heard at Uni about European aristocrats who had ruins installed on their estates in the nineteenth century. The way so many literary works are grounded in sadness. So many authors begin their stories with loss. That sweet, melancholy emotion. The ruins gave the sense of life in the shadow of a greater civilisation that had passed. The feeling must have been around a lot in the middle ages.
I started to inflate the little tender using a foot pump. I pulled the boat into the shade of a Norfolk pine. It was easier out of the heat. The air chambers were separated in case of puncture. If you got a puncture only one third was meant to deflate.
I though of the scene in the film Titanic where it’s explained that the compartmentalised design of the hull makes the ship unsinkable. I knew creative writing often felt the most stimulating when I sensed I was learning.
I said, ‘OK. By law we have to take a bucket, a torch, the anchor, fishing license, a whistle, life jackets and the paddles.’
Andrew said, ‘Will we use the anchor?’
‘We’re supposed to take it. Should be alright without it. I’ll put it in the car. We’re gonna sit low in the water anyway.’
I took the extraneous equipment back to the car and we took off our shoes and rolled up our jeans. Andrew jumped in and I pushed the boat further and rolled over the side.
I lifted the three horse power motor off the floor and attached it to the plastic transom. I lowered the propeller into the water. I primed the motor and pulled the chord. It started on the second pull.
I knew a part of my consciousness was taking in the details of the day, aware that I might later attempt to capture the moment in a short story.
I lowered the revs and pushed down on the lever that shifted the motor out of neutral. It bit into gear with a clunk and the boat lurched. I sat to the left of the motor and piloted us into the deeper channel between Scotland Island and Church Point. The water cooled and the colour changed from golden, to green, to blue, then darker blues and black.
It was twenty-five degrees in the early afternoon. The tide had begun to turn and the drift was slow. No surging tidal waters to contend with. I had a feeling of isolation. Of getting away. Leaving it behind.
I hadn’t ever had that feeling more strongly than when I took that little boat out on the water and cut ties with the land, as a captain. The sense of potential adventure. It had something to do with the factors that determined my immediate fate being largely within my control. Whereas on land they seemed vast and untamable. Controlled by central bankers or geopolitical strategists. Perhaps this was also part of the allure of fiction writing: gaining control of all the factors in a world.
It was also the small but niggling feeling of mortal danger that focused my mind, like with skiing. The bond between risk, adrenaline and fun. Things were usually of interest when they were a little bit dangerous, also perhaps true of fiction.
I shouted over the sound of the motor, ‘Pittwater’s an estuary. So there aren’t waves. And the island’s stopping them too.’
Andrew nodded, puckered his lips, squinted. I looked at the water that rushed by the side of the tender. I put my hand out and let it drag in the coolness, the water between my fingers.
The outboard performed well. I moved the lever into wide open throttle. The roar increased and we sped up.
After we’d made our way halfway round the island I slowed us down and yelled, ‘You’re lucky if you know what you want.’
‘What do you mean?’
Andrew is a practical guy in his mid twenties. A PhD candidate at UNSW. His work involves medicine and physics. Working out the forces that apply to the human body or something. That’s all I know. I killed the engine.
I said, ‘If you know what you want then you can go after it, and feel good when you get it, or feel bad when you don’t.’
He said, ‘So you don’t know what you want?’
I figured he was up for the challenge.
‘Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, I think. I’ve come off track.’
It was clear this was an ambush but I was keen for level-headed advice. I stuck a hand in one of the bags and pulled out a packet of larger hooks. I dug a couple out, being careful not to drop them on the inflated floor. There was a layer of plastic on top of the hull, but if one of the hooks fell onto the rubber sides of the tender I reckoned there was a good chance it might pop.
Andrew said, ‘Didn’t you know what you wanted to do once?’
He removed one of the hand-lines from my blue bucket. It had lots of tiny hooks that were hard to keep track of.
I said, ‘Careful with the hooks.’
Andrew said, ‘Fishing in an inflatable boat.’
I looked up and watched a huge speedboat about a hundred metres away as it disappeared around the north side of the island. It moved quickly.
I said, ‘I thought I knew what I wanted once.’
‘Remember when you used to do things?’
‘I thought I knew what I wanted then, but it turns out I don’t want those things.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘When I don’t want anything, I reckon it’s hard to know what to do.’
‘You must want some things.’
‘Life’s all about desire I reckon. If you’ve got desire you’re lucky, because your purpose is obvious. Go after what you want.’
Andrew said, ‘Some people just do their best. That’s what they’ve been doing all along. Getting up and doing their best each day.’
‘What’s my best then?’
‘I don’t know. Only you know. Could start with getting a job.’
‘What if I do my best at something, but then hate it. Work out I don’t want it?’
‘You have to chose something to want then.’
I asked, ‘Does it work like that?’
‘It can. You’ll have to go big picture. You’re not supposed to enjoy every moment of work. That’s why it’s called work. And not play.’
‘That’s called the Cargo Wharf on the maps,’ I said and pointed to a reinforced structure by the shore. ‘Probably for getting building material onto the island.’
Perhaps it was still operational regardless of its rusted, broken down appearance.
I threaded a good sized hook through the eye of a frozen pilchard and then a second one through its back. I didn’t attach any lead.
I dropped it over the side and fed out line for what felt like a long time. I locked off the bail. I grasped the fishing rod tight and wondered if a strike would come quick, as I usually did at new locations. After a minute I handed that rod to Andrew.
‘Are you sure?’ he asked.
‘Yes, of course.’
I loved the appreciation non-fishers – ‘lay people’ or ‘land lubbers’ – showed when I handed over operational fishing rods. We both sat and looked at the blue water.
‘I wonder how deep it is,’ Andrew said.
‘I wonder if there’s anything really big swimming around at the bottom.’
I thought about how writers plumb the depths of the subconscious for dangerous, interesting items. I noticed we were drifting towards one of the rusty pylons and I said, ‘Maybe we could have used the anchor after all.’
I felt the bottom starting to go out of things.
I asked, ‘What if you choose something and try to get it and then decide you don’t want it?’
‘Then you’d be where you are now.’
‘Exactly. I’ve done it wrong.’
‘Nah. When you were writing, pursuing the writing, you looked like you were having a good time.’
‘I thought it would lead to something.’
‘Why didn’t it?’
‘I don’t know. It stopped making sense. Couldn’t visualize an audience anymore. Couldn’t remember why it was worthwhile. And I reckon sometimes the closer you study something the less magical it gets. As you understand its rules. It seems more mechanical. Its mystery stops working on you. Like seeing how magic tricks work.’
‘So you don’t like writing anymore. You could still tutor in it or something. You just have to get out there and do something. You’re pretty competitive. You probably need a structured environment. Then you would compete inside it.’
‘Great. A structured environment. That’s what it’s come down to. Six years of tertiary education and I need a structured environment. Do you need a structured environment?’
‘Sometimes. You know regular people work to earn money. It’d be nice to spend all day talking about our feelings but some of us suppress that urge in order to buy a house. To support our families and ourselves. Get it? Does that make sense?’
I said, ‘It’s different for you. In your field of work things are either correct or incorrect.’
Andrew said, ‘Your first priority is to buy a house. You know, be a man. Provide. Any of this coming through?’
I said, ‘So you think I’m failing? Or I’ve failed?’
Andrew said, ‘It looks like that, doesn’t it? It’s starting to look like that. But it’s not over. You can start any time. The way everyone else – ’
A siren wailed close behind me and made me jump. I turned and watched as a police boat approached. It was a forty-footer, with four enormous engines on the back. It looked like a big toy.
‘Hallo. Fishing are we? Any luck?’ called a young officer on the deck. He was holding a clipboard.
I said, ‘No luck. Any tips?’
The young bloke guffawed. He turned around to look at the officer behind him. The senior man had his arms folded across his chest and dark aviator glasses obscured his eyes. He didn’t laugh. The young man dropped his smile and turned back to face us.
‘We’re just going to perform a couple of checks.’
‘Go for it,’ I said.
The bloke glanced at his clipboard. Then his white pen dribbled out of his hand. It bounced off the side of the bulwark and tumbled slowly through the air before it splashed into the water. We all watched it become fainter, as it swung from side to side.
He said, ‘Sorry, Greg. I lost my pen.’
The senior officer sighed. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and handed it over.
‘Cheers. Right. You fellas got a bucket?’
‘Yep,’ I said.
I held up the bucket.
‘Nice,’ the officer said.
He looked surprised and ticked something on the form.
I pulled the whistle out of the bucket.
He looked back at his boss whose face was totally inscrutable.
‘Torch? Life jackets.’
I held them up.
‘Good. Not wearing them?’
I said, ‘I thought you only had to wear them if you were in the boat by yourself.’
The young man looked back and the senior officer nodded slowly. When the young man turned back around, the senior officer shook his head.
The young man said, ‘Very good. I can see your oars. You fellas have done well.’
The older man sighed and came to the edge of the boat. He said, ‘Both got valid fishing licenses?’
‘I’ve got one,’ I said, pulling my wallet out of my pocket and holding the license out. It would have been difficult to get it to him. We were about five metres apart.
‘When does it expire?’
I looked at the date.
I said, ‘Last week.’
I looked at Andrew apologetically. He shrugged.
Andrew said, ‘Nearly.’
‘What’s that?’ the senior officer said.
‘Just that we nearly made it,’ Andrew said.
‘And let’s see your anchor,’ the officer said.
‘It’s over there,’ I said, and pointed. ‘In the boot of my car.’
He said, ‘This is a four hundred dollar on the spot fine.’
The young officer looked on, lips pulled tight in an apologetic grimace.
‘Damn,’ I said.
We sat in the boat quietly, resigned to whatever came. There was an extended silence. I started to think I was supposed to say something, but couldn’t think what. The silence dragged on. The two officers looked at each other.
The stern one sighed really loud again.
He said, ‘Look, we need to be heading to the other side of the island. We’ll be back within half an hour. If you’re still here we are going to have a problem. You understand?’
‘Yes officer,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’
The young bloke didn’t say anything. He handed back the pen. Tapped his fingers loudly on the clip board.
The old fella walked to the front of the boat and called back over his shoulder, ‘Half an hour.’
The boat started up with a roar and moved off. It left churning eddies in its wake. We watched it go.
Andrew said, ‘We must have looked like a couple of sitting ducks. They didn’t reckon we were going to have a single thing on that list.’
I reeled in the two lines we had out. The police boat disappeared behind the island. Andrew sat on the metal seat in the middle of the tender. I shuffled down to sit next to the motor.
‘So I guess I’ll try to supplement my creative income,’ I said.
‘Everyone’s trying to supplement their income,’ Andrew said.
Andrew had his chin in his palm, and stared towards the island and across to the expensive and sheltered estates in Lovett Bay. I thought about the way something as natural as fishing has so many rules. Was creative writing the same? Did it also have these invisible, counter intuitive strictures? I pushed the choke lever up, pulled the cord on the motor and steered us back towards the beach at Church Point.
Oliver Wakelin is an Australian, Sydney-based writer who grew up in Dublin, and also lived for a while in London. His novel Aos Si was long listed for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award. A short story of his has appeared on the Seizure website, and a poem in Hermes. In 2018 he completed a law degree at University of Sydney, and began work on his third novel. He is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Practice at University of New South Wales, and a fiction reader at Overland literary journal.
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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence